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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Norway urged to tighten cruise rules

Cruiseships are already sailing back to Norway as Corona restrictions ease, but now many face tougher regulations especially in winter. A government commission recommends limits on sailing in bad weather, and that only a limited number of ships be allowed to cruise to and around Svalbard.

The cruiseship Viking Sky sailed, in the midst of a storm, right into particularly treacheous seas off the Norwegian coast in March 2019. The vessel, with more than 1,300 people on board, then lost power and drifted dangerously close to rocks and land. Passengers had to be hoisted up to rescue helicopters hovering above and there was no loss of life, but the serious accident set off alarms about cruise traffic in Norway and the strain it can put on search and rescue operations that were commended but pushed nearly beyond capacity. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

“Sometimes we have to close roads in the mountains (in rough winter weather),” reasoned Kjerstin Askholt, a career police officer and former governor of Svalbard who led the commission that’s been reviewing the risks of cruise operations along the Norwegian coast. “Perhaps we should also close parts of the coast when the weather is too bad.”

The commission was appointed by the justice ministry after the cruiseship Viking Sky sailed during a storm into the treacherous Hustadvika portion of the coast south of Kristiansund. The vessel lost power and risked grounding with more than 1,300 people on board, forcing dangerous rescue operations to hoist passengers up to helicopters overhead.

The commission now urges clear and stricter regulation of cruise traffic because Norway’s search and rescue operations are not dimensioned to handle mass evacuations of large vessels with thousands of people on board. “An increase in cruise traffic also increases the probability that accidents will happen,” Askholt said while presenting the commission’s report on Wednesday to Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl.

There’s also been a marked increase in cruising during the winter months, when storms can be frequent. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that the commission has made 66 recommendations to reduce accident risk, including restrictions on sailing during storms for vessels that are more than 150 meters long. The restrictions would be based on wind strength and the height of waves.

Winter cruising itself has raised concerns, especially those operating in Norway’s Arctic areas. The commission noted that the farther north they sail, the lower the preparedness for accidents can be. That’s what’s behind the commission’s calls for new restrictions on cruising to Svalbard. Distances are vast around the Arctic archipelago, with limited rescue- and health care services available, the commission noted. Weather and ice conditions can also change quickly.

The government commission led by Kjerstin Askholt (far right) handed over its report to Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl (second from right) in typically stormy weather on Wednesday near the site of the Viking Sky‘s accident at Hustadvika. PHOTO: Justisdepartementet

That’s why a majority on the commission believes Norway should limit vessels to only having 500-750 people on board cruiseships sailing in territorial waters around Svalbard. That won’t be popular within the cruise industry nor among Svalbard residents, who have come to rely on tourism as a major source of earnings after coal mining has been shut down.

Residents have already been protesting proposed regulations tied to security and mobility on land and to climate and environmental concerns. Both the justice ministry itself and the state environmental directorate were targets last fall of a rare torchlit demonstration in Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s largest settlement, in which tourism industry officials made their objections clear.

“We’re tired of an endless stream of regulations that make it difficult to run a business here,” Ronny Brunvoll, tourism chief on Svalbard, told newspaper Aftenposten at the time. Terje Aunevik, leader of Svalbard’s business association, was also frustrated: “Many of the measures (already) proposed are so wide-reaching that they’ll lead to several business operators pulling out. That weaken the economy here.”

Among new regulations proposed then were measures to make sure all guides on Svalbard are certified, that all ships with more than 200 passengers be banned from all 29 conservation areas around Svalbard, that tourists only be allowed to go ashore in limited number of specific locations and that non-residents must apply for permission to venture more than 10 kilometers outside Longyearbyen at least four weeks in advance.

The goals are to protect the environment and human safety, given the presence of polar bears on Svalbard. “It’s important that we establish a framework for the kind of tourism we want on Svalbard,” said former justice minister Monica Mæland in calling for regulatory proposals. Ellen Hambro, head of the state environmental directorate, also said it was important to protect “the steadily more vulnerable Arctic environment” from the effects of climate change and tourism when it begins to expand again after the pandemic.

Others claim the proposals went too far, with the local hunting and fishing association complaining that even former residents and visiting family and friends wanting to set off on a short ski trip would require arrangers to apply for permission, obtain rescue insurance, purchase expensive equipment and report in regularly to authorities.

Some stricter rules already in place around Svalbard
Cruiseships fueled by heavy bunker oil have already been banned from Svalbard since New Year, for fear of oil spills, reported newspaper Klassekampen. That pretty much rules out all large cruiseships, passengers from which could often overwhelm the small city of Longyearbyen when they disembarked. As many as 60,000 cruise passengers could arrive during the summer months before the Corona crisis began.

By the end of last summer, a total of 24 vessels had reported their pending arrivals in the summer of 2022. Some of them are large, but claimed they’d empty their tanks of heavy oil and fill up with diesel before sailing north. Now they may be affected, or turned away, if they’re bigger than the government commission’s new proposed rules and those rules are ultimately approved.

Norway’s current justice minister, who took office last fall, called the commission’s report “important.” Mehl said she was keen to study measures that would prevent serious accidents involving cruiseships along the coast, in cooperation with the industry.

Askholt stressed that it was most important to realize that it’s not possible to have a search and rescue operation standing by that’s large enough to deal with a “worst-case scenario” involving large vessels. That’s why it’s important to control cruise traffic and reduce risk of accidents.

“It’s incredibly important to take preventative measures, and the business itself must take a large share of the responsibility,” Askholt said. The commission also recommends strengthening Norway’s search and rescue headquarters (Hovedredningssentralen). In the meantime, more training is recommended for towing large cruise ships, and making sure tow lines are installed aboard all cruiseships. Berglund



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