“Guide” is, so far, not a formally qualified profession. There are efforts, private and industry-based, to introduce certification for guides, but until now, basically everybody can come, claim to be a guide and try to find work. This has actually worked well over many years as a limited number of tourists was met by an also limited but sufficiently large number of guides who were enthusiasts of the outdoors and had, as such, built up sufficient knowledge, skills and experience to lead tourists in arctic nature, summer or winter, by ski, dog sledge, snow mobile, boat, ship, hiking, whatever.
But times have changed. Recent years have seen a number of new companies who want their share of the tourism market in the Arctic, often in the attractive day trip market in Longyearbyen’s surroundings. A “market”: that’s what it is now, a market with a huge turnover where a lot of money is made by some. Not a niche anymore where a limited number of enthusiasts find their way of life with a lot of personal idealism and effort. Of course they still exist, but the total picture is by now far more complex.
The grown and still growing market implies an increased need for guides, and it is not just a few observers who are not always satisfied with the level of knowledge, experience and skill that they see.
Tourist group with guide in Colesdalen: guide is, so far, an open profession.
This is not just annoying, but may also be dangerous. In Spitsbergen, guides handle weapons, boats, snow mobiles and dog sledges on a regular basis, they deal with arctic weather, have to expect meeting a polar bear at any time in the field and take responsibility for the safety of people in these conditions. Additionally, guides are a key factor when it comes to environmental issues. It is fully possible to visit cultural heritage sites, observe wildlife and walk in the nature without destroying or disturbing anything, but the opposite may also happen and competent leadership out in the field is key in this context.
Seen in this light, one may wonder why certification requirements for guides have not already been introduced a long time ago, also as an alternative to closing sites and even large areas, as was discussed no less than a good 10 years ago. Even the local industry sector organisation Visit Svalbard has now expressed themselves positively towards this issue – of course expecting to be part of such a process. Everybody in the business knows that for example a serious accidents would do harm not only to those directly involved but to the whole industry if it turns out that lack of qualification on behalf of the guides was a factor.
Safety and environmental matters are issues that local guides have also been aware of for quite a while, according to the Svalbard Guide Association. And of course “old” guides with years of solid experience are not always happy when young colleages without relevant experience and skills come and take their jobs, an issue that is relevant not only for environmental and safety concerns but also when it comes to working conditions in the industry.
Spitsbergen’s glacier will, however, probably still lose a good bit of ice until requirements for guide certification has been formalised on a legal level: The Norwegian government’s recent press release just indicated a need to discuss the issue. There are still a lot of practical questions to be answered regarding the qualification and certifaction process.