Affordable fjord

1 Jun 2006 by business traveller

Not many people have heard of Haugesund, and even fewer bother to visit. According to The Rough Guide to Norway, there is "no particular reason" to go to this former fishing town, which has become a hub for companies servicing Norway's oil and gas industry.

That is more than a little unfair. Haugesund is a lively town (population 31,000) with thriving annual film and jazz festivals that make it the place to be during the summer months. The likes of Pierce Brosnan, Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann – perhaps Norway's greatest film star – are regular visitors.
There are good restaurants, comfortable hotels (most with wifi connections), lots of cafés and bars, and a pretty promenade overlooking the Karmsundet waterway – a passage that provided important shelter in years gone by for both herring fishermen and the Vikings. This part of southwest Norway was a key strategic point for the Vikings as it was one of the furthest points west from which to launch missions across the North Sea. Oslo is just over 200 miles to the east.

It also has daily Ryanair flights, which began in April 2003 and are opening up Haugesund to leisure and business travellers, starting at £29 return. Peter Sherrard, Ryanair's head of communications, said the airline picked the route because Haugesund Airport came to them: "They were keen to have international flights. The route provides a year-round international connection between London and Western Norway and the fjords."

Already Ryanair carries 90,000 people a year. Many are business people working in Stavanger, about 45 miles to the south. Another draw is Bergen, a city with a Unesco World Heritage historic centre and a population of 212,000, located 60 miles to the north. Nick Terdre, a British journalist specialising in oil and gas reporting based in Stavanger, says locals in both Stavanger and Bergen regularly now fly from Haugesund to the UK. "If it's only costing £40, or something like that, you can't complain," he adds.

Hotel choices are plentiful. The Clarion Collection Hotel Amanda (£67 for a double) in the centre of town is the number one choice with film directors visiting the annual festival. It has stylish rooms, a good restaurant, wifi (£8 for four hours) and the latest film posters decorating the hallways. The Rica Maritim (£84 for a double) is where most of the stars, including Brosnan, stay during the festival. It is also on the waterfront, with free wifi and a statue of Marilyn Monroe outside. Monroe's father came from a village called Skjold, about 15 miles away. He emigrated to America but abandoned his family and died in a motorcycle accident before seeing his daughter, who was born Norma Jean Mortensen (Mortensen was his surname). There is also a Radisson SAS (doubles £67) just outside the town centre, with free wifi, a swimming pool and late-night entertainment at the weekends.

Oil and gas rule the roost in the local business world. Two major companies have bases in and around Haugesund: Vetco Aibel and Gassco. Vetco Aibel builds and maintains North Sea platforms and has a big plant on Risoy Island, opposite Haugesund's town centre and connected by a short bridge. Vetco employs around 1,300 people at its Haugesund plant, but has 10,000 employees across the world in 17 countries including Angola, Australia, Brazil, Iran, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Thailand and the US. It is 66 per cent owned by two UK companies – 3i and Candover – and has its administrative headquarters in London. There are 65 platforms serving Norway's oil and gas sector, of which 38 are maintained by Vetco. When rigs are brought in to be checked at its Haugesund site during the summer months, they loom over the old fishing town and become a visual attraction in their own right.

"Business is going well," says Roar Jorgensen, Vetco's marketing manager. "We are pretty much occupied with projects for 2006 and we are positive about work ahead." He explains there is healthy competition among oil and gas platform companies in Norway; its biggest rival Aker Kvarner has a main plant about 60 miles north of Haugesund and employs about 35,000, keeping Vetco on its toes. Jorgensen says a lot of production work is now being conducted at its yard in Thailand where labour costs are lower (and where labour is plentiful – in contrast, Norway's population is just 4.2 million), with the parts being assembled later in Norway.

Would things be easier if Norway became part of the European Union? Norway has twice rejected joining the EU in national referendums in 1972 and 1994. Jorgensen is positive about the idea. "It could be a big benefit," he says. "But we have had political changes recently with a centre-left party now in power and it does not look like another referendum is likely soon."

Gassco is a state-owned company which is responsible for maintaining and overseeing gas pipes that provide 10 per cent of the gas in the UK and about 30 per cent in Germany. There are two pipes to the UK with one more on the way, three pipes to Germany, one to Belgium and one to France. It has two main plants: one at Karsto, just outside Haugesund, and one to the north in Kollsnes.

Jonathan Alcock, a project manager from Birkenhead, has been working for Gassco since 1983. He says: "The oil was what made Norway rich, but it is the gas that will keep it rich. Karsto is the world's third-largest gas plant. It is very, very big. Our challenge is to keep Europe warm. Every time we have a minor shutdown we get the financial wires on the line – Bloomsberg, Reuters – saying 'don't leave us in the cold!'"

Gassco estimates that there is 50 years of gas left in current fields, but there is confidence that fields of the same size recently discovered to the north, near the border with Russia, will last at least 50 years beyond that – making Norway one of the wealthiest (and the most expensive) nations in Europe. Average earnings are already about £27,000. Norway is the only place I have ever heard people say: "You're so lucky; it's so cheap in London!" Eating out in Haugesund costs at least £60 for a three-course meal with wine; beers served in its bars cost £5 for 0.4 litres. Many Ryanair flights are filled with locals on shopping breaks. Alcock says: "There is a high average income – people are definitely travelling around a lot."

The efficient local chamber of commerce is part of a body called Haugalandradet. It helps businesses to set up in the region, and offers contacts for those seeking business opportunities. Vidar Vorraa, manager at Haugalandradet, says: "Oil and gas are massive here. But there is lots of ship building to support oil and gas development. We describe the two as the 'petro-maritime cluster'. There's also fish farming – salmon and trout. We also have a big aluminium plant [Hydro Aluminium, which employs about 1,300 people, and was Europe's largest until very recently]."
Vorraa says that the shift from the "boom herring days" of the 1920s to 1940s was neatly followed by mainstream deep-sea fishing, and the development of oil fields in the 1970s.

Add to all this industry some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe – the fjords are breathtaking – and it won't just be business travellers visiting Haugesund. Audun Stene, 30 years old and co-owner of the Fugl Fonix Hotel in Etne, a small town beside Etne fjord, about 50 miles inland from Haugesund, says business has picked up quickly since a travel agency linked to Ryanair's website began offering trips in Etne. He plans to spread his "funky art hotels" concept across Norway over the next five years. He says: "The great thing about Norway is that it is such a small, and such a wealthy, country. Things happen fast here. If you have an idea that works, it can happen quickly."

There are plenty of (very good) reasons, it seems, to visit Haugesund, after all.



Clarion Collection Hotel Amanda
(choicehotels.no) has B&B doubles from £67, including "afternoon soup" and salads served at 6pm. Also has sauna, steam room and wifi (£8 for four hours).

Rica Maritim (rica.no) has B&B doubles from £84. It was recently refurbished with a good seafood restaurant, nightclub and free wifi.

Radisson SAS (radisson.com) has B&B doubles from £67. Free wifi, large rooms with balconies, and is the only hotel with a pool.

Fugl Fonix Hotel (fuglfonix.no) has B&B doubles from £59; wifi in the restaurant/café only. This is an hour's drive inland from Haugesund.


Lothes (lothesmat.no) is the best restaurant in town, in a lovely 19th-century fisherman's house with a stylish bar next door. Great seafood. Three courses with wine about £70.

Bestastua (bestastua.com) is another great seafood choice with a lively bar/club downstairs. Three courses with wine about £60.

To Glas (toglass.no) is a relaxed wine bar-restaurant close to the harbour front, with informal bar-meals for about £40 a head with wine.


Haugalandradet (haugalandradet.no) represents the local chamber of commerce.

Haugesund Travel (freedomnorway.com) is the best local travel agency – with a large office at the airport.

Gassco (gassco.no) – one of the major local companies.

Vetco (vetco.com) – another major employer.


Norway (Lonely Planet, £12.99) has the most information on Haugesund.


Ryanair (ryanair.com) has return flights from Stansted from £30.

Loading comments...

Search Flight

See a whole year of Reward Seat Availability on one page at SeatSpy.com

The cover of the Business Traveller April 2024 edition
The cover of the Business Traveller April 2024 edition
Be up-to-date
Magazine Subscription
To see our latest subscription offers for Business Traveller editions worldwide, click on the Subscribe & Save link below