Tourism booms in Norway’s Arctic

SVALBARD: Strong growth within Norway’s tourism industry is also extending well into the Arctic. On Svalbard, tourism is undergoing a boom that’s now being fueled by major new investment, while also raising safety and climate concerns.

Tourists line the rails of a boat that’s taken them on a day trip from Longyearbyen towards the former mining community of Pyramiden, breaking through some ice along the way. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Svalbard, the remote Arctic archipelago that’s been administered by Norway for nearly 100 years, has gone through waves of economic activity, from whaling and trapping to coal mining. None has been climate- or environmentally friendly but they’ve kept the islands populated, and that’s been of seemingly greater political importance.

Now, after coal prices fell and mines have closed, tourism is showing perhaps the greatest potential as a source of income to maintain the population of a few thousand hardy souls in Longyearbyen, the administrative hub on Svalbard’s main island of Spitsbergen. That’s important not least to Norwegian authorities and their NATO allies, especially after the past few years of rising tensions with Russia, which itself maintains a presence at relatively nearby Barentsburg.

After admiring a glacier that’s subject to melting because of climate change in the Arctic, the tourist boat broke through nearby ice in the fjord off Pyramiden, to let passengers walk on ice remaining from the winter. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

A weak Norwegian krone, the currency used on the otherwise internationally oriented Svalbard, and increased interest in the Arctic are fueling visitor arrivals. The number of cruiseships arriving in Longyearbyen has grown so much that local officials may build a new floating pier to accommodate them. “Last summer we had three ships here on the same day,” said one local tour guide, noting that they unleashed 6,000 tourists, nearly three times the population of Longyearbyen itself. While the cruise tourists don’t spend money on hotels or much at the local restaurants that have sprung up in recent years, they do create demand for bus and taxi transport, guided tours and souvenirs.

Those comfortable with leaving their own footprints on the ice could also view recent paw prints left by one of Svalbard’s endangered polar bears. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

More important are those who fly into Longyearbyen and stay for a while. Their numbers have grown to the point that the Svalbard division of the Norwegian coastal voyage line Hurtigruten announced last week that it will be investing another NOK 200 million (USD 23.5 million) in Longyearbyen, the largest tourism investment on Svalbard ever. “For Hurtigruten, it’s an investment in the future,” stated the company’s chief executive, Daniel Skjeldam. “It won’t generate any short-term return, but it will help boost quality and secure sustainable growth for tourism on Svalbard.”

This was the “footprint” left by the ice-breaking tourist boat on Svalbard this week, as it chips its way back into Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian mining settlement that’s a popular tourist attraction on Svalbard. A guide said the boats are allowed to break through ice up to a certain depth, and then reverse out of it. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The money will be used to more than double the capacity of Hurtigruten’s Polar Hotel, currently run under the management of the Radisson chain as the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel Spitsbergen. It’s been enjoying high occupancy rates, is sold out on many nights and will now get around 100 new rooms, new conference facilities and a bigger bar and restaurant. Local newspaper Svalbardposten reported that work is due to begin as soon as Hurtigruten gets building permits and a contractor in place, with plans calling for the opening of a new wing by March 1 of next year. The rest of the expansion is due to be completed in 2018 and 2019.

Rising interest in the Arctic is bringing ever-growing numbers of tourists to Svalbard, leading to equally rising concerns over their impact on the environment. Others view tourism as a good economic alternative to Svalbard’s coal industry, which has fallen on hard times and is unpopular among those trying to reverse climate change. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Even greater investment will be made in Hurtigruten’s Spitsbergen Hotel, known locally as Funken because it was initially built to serve and entertain the funksjonærene (administrators) of the now-state-owned Store Norske coal company that dominated economic activity on Svalbard for decades. The Spitsbergen Hotel has been billed as Svalbard’s top hotel, still charges high rates (NOK 3,190, or USD 370, for a run-down standard double this week, booked in March) and has a good restaurant, but some of those rooms haven’t been remodeled for years and don’t represent the “quality” Skjeldam is promoting. Svalbardposten reported the hotel will close this winter for upgrading and reopen next spring as Funken Lodge.

Some worry that Longyearbyen will go from being a company town dominated by the Store Norske coal company to one dominated by Hurtigruten and other tourism operations. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Plans to create a spa behind the hotel, which sits on a hillside location above the downtown area, have been scrapped because of avalanche danger. So have plans to build an entirely new hotel: “We didn’t have a site and our calculations show it will be more profitable to build out than to build new,” Knut Harald Holst-Hansen of Hurtigruten told Svalbardposten. “We think there will be room for a new hotel in the future, but now we’ll exploit what we have first.”

The Hurtigruten CEO’s use of the word “sustainable” is important in a fragile Arctic environment, and debatable even among local tourism players. All the expansion will bring more people, more flights and more activity to Longyearbyen and some call it “totally positive” since it means Hurtigruten, at least, “has faith in Svalbard as a destination,” according to officials at tourism agency Visit Svalbard. Holst-Hansen claims the company will “take even better care” of Longyearbyen’s history while the expansion will create jobs, most of which currently seem to be held, though, by foreign workers from Poland and Sweden to Thailand and the Americas.

Even the once-dominant Store Norske coal company is getting into the tourism game, taking visitors on tours of shut-down mines on Svalbard. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Some think Longyearbyen will go from being a company town controlled by Store Norske to one run by Hurtigruten, which already controls a centralized booking system, several restaurants, cafés, tours and even the Longyear78 sporting goods store. One independent operator admitted to being jealous of the investment by Hurtigruten, and the competitive clout it already has, while others hailed last week’s news as “good for everyone.” Store Norske, which now relies on Norwegian government bailouts and has shut down operations at all its mines except for one, is also trying to tap into tourism by offering mine tours and a historical look at the industry.

Tourists alight from a sightseeing bus near Svalbard’s only coal mine still in operation, to photograph the panoramic view from the top of the same road used by coal trucks. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Still others like Svalbard Adventure Group have big plans to turn Svalbard and Longyearbyen from a company town into a “world class” tourist destination, “exclusive and rough” at the same time. Its proposals include building a gondola up to local mountaintops so that cruise passengers, bicyclists, skiers, hikers and hotel guests can gain better access to both the wilderness and spectacular views over the Arctic landscape. “Viewpoints are popular all over the world, and especially where folks can also see nature like here,” wrote Svalbard Adventure Group’s leaders in a commentary in Svalbardposten last week. One of them is Morten E Astrup, the brother of a member of Norway’s parliament who otherwise lives in Switzerland and commutes to his work as a financier in London by flying his own private jet. He’s been actively investing in restaurants and other tourism operations in Longyearbyen and serves as chairman of Svalbard Adventure Group.

A tourist takes a picture what one guide called “the most photographed sign on Svalbard,” just outside Longyearbyen, which warns of polar bear danger all over the archipelago. They’re an endangered species, but some 3,000 still wander around the islands. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Svalbardposten editorialized that “it’s easy to be thrilled” by the tourism boom, but there’s also cause for concern. “Svalbard, with its vulnerable and sensitive nature and unique wildlife can’t tolerate an unlimited amount of tourists. Then the archipelago will lose its special charm, and the wear and tear will be disproportionately great.” That’s what’s already happening in some areas of mainland Norway like the Geiranger Fjord, where cruiseships jam the end of the fjord, disgorge thousands of passengers and generate air pollution.

More cruiseships and more flights to Svalbard will also mean more emissions in the fragile Arctic, albeit likely less than what the coal industry generated for nearly a century. More visitors mean more consumption, more demand for cargo shipments and, noted one guide, “even more plastic coming to the island.” Some restrictions are in place, for cruiseships and tourist boats alike, for example. Attempts are being made to make tourists themselves conscious of the impact they have. They’re encouraged to buy local products and not to create much garbage.

Concerns have also risen over the potential for accidents, search and rescue capacity and even oil or other types of spills involving cruiseships. Sverre Engeness, head of Norway’s Coast Guard (Kystvakta), admitted at a seminar of politicians from NATO countries last week that cruise traffic “has grown beyond us the last 10 years. In my opinion, we need two vessels capable of carrying helicopters in the area that are able to break ice in the future.” He noted, however, that Norway and Russia cooperate well in emergency situations.

“It’s healthy to raise consciousness about the growth in tourism and find good, sustainable solutions that won’t damage the nature or bother the local population to any large degree,” wrote Svalbardposten’s editor Hilde Røsvik. “We can also ask whether local authorities, in cooperation with the tourism industry, should set a limit on how many tourists this little town with just over 2,000 residents can in fact manage to take in.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund