The remote Swedish town of Jukkasjärvi—located 120 miles above the Arctic Circle—was never the natural choice for a winter tourist destination. Known more for its plentiful summer offerings, like rafting trips and fishing expeditions, the small village off the Torne River turned into an icy ghost town in wintertime. Then, in the late 1980s, a local Swedish entrepreneur had a whimsical idea that changed everything: combine ice with art to attract visitors during the cold winter months. Twenty-five years later, Jukkasjärvi is the epicenter of the winter tourism phenomenon known as the ice hotel, where adventurous guests pay to spend the night in a room crafted entirely from ice. Over the years, imitators have sprung up from Canada to Japan, but Jukkasjärvi’s Icehotel remains the first and the biggest.
“More or less, it was a coincidence,” says Icehotel’s creative director Arne Bergh of the hotel’s creation. For years, local businessman Yngve Bergqvist had watched as Jukkasjärvi filled with tourists attending conferences or looking for adventure on the Torne, one of Europe’s cleanest rivers, during the summer, while the town emptied in the winter. Hatching a plan to keep the place in business during its coldest months, Berqvist traveled to some of the world’s coldest places, including Sapporo, Japan, during its annual winter ice festival. Surrounded by the tradition of ice sculpting, Bergqvist had an idea—bring icy art to Jukkasjärvi. In 1989, the town hosted its first ice sculpting seminar, inviting artists from Japan to come and work with ice pulled from the Thorne. In 1990, the art moved inside a 645-square-foot igloo on the banks of the Torne.