Russia won’t let Hurtigruten sail

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Russian authorities have spoiled some exclusive Arctic cruise plans for passengers on board one of the Norwegian shipping line Hurtigruten‘s newest vessels, the MS Spitsbergen. After initially seeming to welcome more cruise traffic in Russian waters, the Russians have suddenly denied the vessel entry.

Hurtigruten’s specially built ship MS Spitsbergen is often used for so-called “expedition” cruising. Now its upcoming Arctic voyages to Franz Josef Land have had to be cancelled. PHOTO: Hurtigruten/Karsten Bidstrup

“We’d had a good dialogue with Russian authorities for a long time about the cruises, and all the details have been in place,” Hurtigruten’s communications director Anne Marit Bjørnflåten told Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen. She said the sudden denial of entry into Russian waters east of Svalbard thus came as a surprise, just weeks before the first cruise was due to begin from Tromsø.

The plan was to sail from Tromsø via Murmansk in Russia and north to Franz Josef Land, an island group northeast of Svalbard. Now Hurtigruten has been denied a license to make two planned cruises with a total of 250 people on board in Russia’s portion of the Barents Sea, even though the vessel meets all Arctic standards.

“We’ve had to cancel the cruises since the Russian authorities very surprisingly rejected our application for sailing permission,” Bjørnflaten said. She added that Hurtigruten officials can’t understand why Russian authorities changed their mind, “especially since Russia has signaled that they’ve wanted to increase cruise traffic in general for several years.”

Heightened tensions in a ‘strategic’ area
Julie Wilhelmsen, a senior researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI who follows Russia closely, wasn’t as surprised. She said it illustrates increased tensions between Russia and the west, along with how the Arctic is reverting back to being a strategically important military area instead of a region that’s been subject to cooperation among nations bordering it.

Russia is currently conducting military exercises in four areas off Norway’s northern coast. Bjørnflaten said Hurtigruten had also been informed by the Russians that they intend to have more exercises in the area where the MS Spitsbergen planned to sail.

“You have to look at this in a broader context,” Wilhelmsen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “There’s been a clear shift in the Arctic.” The Russian military has also built a military air base on Franz Josef Land and placed radar stations there.

Compensation looms
“What used to be an area of civilian interest isn’t any longer,” Wilhelmsen said. “It’s become a strategic area, part of an entirely new interaction between the powers in the area, and it’s having consequences in this case.” She claimed Hurtigruten is also no longer viewed as just a shipping line made up of civilian vessels, but as having vessels “that can have military goals, like western espionage.”

Hurtigruten officials are clearly disappointed, and now must offer compensation to all passengers who’d signed up for the cruises at a cost of around NOK 58,000 (USD 6,400) each.

“They’ll also be offered other cruises with us,” Bjørnflaten told NRK. “We’re very sorry for the inconvenience that is causing for our guests who had looked forward to a very special trip.” Berglund