Svalbard tourism chills scientists

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Growing numbers of tourists are leaving a worrisome footprint on Svalbard’s fragile environment, according to the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA). In a new study, NINA proposes tougher regulation of tourism in the Arctic archipelago and of the cruise industry in particular.

The wake of a tourist ship making its way through Svalbard ice, so that tourists can set foot on parts of it. PHOTO: Møst

“The increasing tourism has clear negative effects,” NINA scientist Hogne Øian told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).

Tourist visits to Svalbard have increased sharply in recent years, reaching 150,000 last year. While the number of overnight visitors has doubled over the last decade, more cruise traffic poses a special challenge, with hordes of passengers literally leaving big footprints when they go ashore. Vegetation gets worn down in areas where tourists are allowed, and often takes a long time to recover because of the Arctic climate. At the same time, dramatic climate change leaves plants and animals even more vulnerable to tourism traffic, NINA claims.

The Trondheim-based NINA institute is an independent foundation, conducting research on nature and what its mission statement calls “interaction between human society, natural resources and biodiversity.”

Cruise passengers overwhelm main port
In tiny Longyearbyen, the main settlement on Svalbard, NINA warns that infrastructure is seriously burdened when cruiseships call and thousands of visitors with limited time flock to see the sights. While the number of arriving cruise vessels has dropped in recent years, they are much bigger and carry more passengers than before. 2018 was a record year with more than 45,000 cruise passengers arriving, compared to just under 30,000 a decade earlier.

NINA recommends a closer look at the effects of taking groups of tourists around by snow scooters, which is a common practice, sometimes with serious results. The institute would also like to see a licensing system (known as konsesjon) set up to force tourism operators to assume legal responsibility for the adverse effects of their activities.

Tourism has helped fill the income void left when Svalbard’s coal industry was all but shut down for climate and cost reasons. Limited mining continues for local energy purposes, like here at the Gruve 7 mine and in the Russian settlement of Barentsburg, but on Wednesday the Svea Nord mine southeast of Longyearbyen was closed. Now a costly clean-up will begin. PHOTO: Møst

Øian and his colleagues have carried out a so-called literature study, examining and comparing research results that already exist. They admit that scientists don’t know enough about potential adverse effects of tourism, so development should proceed with great care, Øien said.

Frigg Jørgensen, head of the Aeco association of cruise expedition firms in the Arctic, said that more than anythng else, the study reveals a need for more knowledge.

“For example, it voices concern that more tourists going ashore may have negative effects. But there are no studies documenting that it actually has a negative effect,” Jørgensen said. However, she does support the idea of tougher regulation.

“Even this industry must be subject to a form of control and requirements for competence and quality,” she told NRK.

NINA’s findings are likely to be helpful for Norway’s government, which is already considering tougher rules for what industry players on Svalbard may and may not do. Among others things, the government aims to weed out those who break rules and cut corners, exploiting how tourism in Svalbad relies on seasonal labour and is hard to regulate.

NINA’s findings were published amid growing tensions between Norway and Russia over administration of Svalbard, including Russian dissatisfaction with current rules and practices governing Russian tourism operations.

“Current policies aim to keep Svalbard as a wilderness, but development of tourism poses a dilemma,” Øian told NRK. “If the number of tourists and their behaviour can’t be managed, it could be hard to reach that goal.” Møst