for National Geographic News
To experience the Swedish heartland, head down one of the remote roads in Småland, a forested district of southern Sweden. At the end of the road, you may reach a torp, the type of small Swedish summerhouse popularized by Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren in her children's books.
Only these days, the people living there may be German.
During the early 1990s southern Sweden was discovered by German second-home buyers. In 1991 there were about 1,500 Germans owning second homes in Sweden. Today they may number more than 10,000.
Germans are hardly alone in setting up a second life away from their main home. Second-home tourism around the world has exploded in recent decades. While most people still buy second homes in their home countries, an increasing number of people are also venturing abroad.
Just how many is hard to say. Second homes have been a largely neglected research topic, and there are few reliable figures on the number of second homes around the world.
But few people doubt that second homes are an integral part of global tourism, especially in rural areas. Although there are social and environmental drawbacks to second-home tourism, most researchers believe its economic and overall impact is largely positive.
"Second-home tourism forms an important contribution to the local economy," said Michael Hall, co-editor of Tourism, Mobility and Second Homes (Channel View Publications). "However, the local tourism authorities rarely acknowledge this role of second-home tourism and mainly make efforts to attract more high-profile tourists."
In Europe a house in the countryside was once an exclusive asset for the nobility. But in the last century second-home ownership spread to groups outside the upper classes.
In North America second homes were built in wilderness areas, partly as a cultural reminder of frontier development. In Australia many of the first coastal second homes were little more than fishing huts on public land.
The main increase in second home ownership since 1960, researchers say, can be explained partly by greater personal mobility offered by cars and air travel. As people have become increasingly urban, the appeal of the country home has grown, too.
While there is no global data on second-home ownership, individual countries maintain some statistics. In 1999 7 percent of Canadian households owned second homes, 77 percent of which were located within Canada. In mainland Spain in the last two decades, growth in second-home ownership has increased 75 percent.