The Norwegian government has started work on a new set of rules for tourism in Spitsbergen. With the department of trade and industry and the department of justice, two ministries are involved in the work which will touch many aspects. It appears that guides will play one central rule. Guides are present during any touristic activity in Spitsbergen and they play a central rule in multiple ways: they carry responsibility for a quality experience, often with an educational aspect, for safety – an important aspect in a potentially dangerous environment such as the Arctic – and for compliance with a range of legal regulations and industry and company standards concerning safety and the protection of the environment including wildlife and cultural heritage.
The polar guide: a central position, but not a protected profession
One can only wonder that such a central profession within an industry that is more than one hundred years old* and that has seen decades of intense industrial development both locally and internationally, is not protected. Anyone can offer guide services. Of course there is a range of considerations and initiatives to certify qualified guides, and this has been going on for many years now both locally in Longyearbyen (Visit Svalbard) as well as internationally (PTGA), and many active guides have used one or another supplier to achieve some kind of certification. And of course, AECO, the “Association of Expedition Cruise Operators”, is working on the issue and various tour operators have developed their own qualification schemes.
*Regular commercial Spitsbergen cruises started in 1891 with Wilhelm Bade.
Tourists observing walruses in Spitsbergen: the guide play a key role in enabling tourists to have a good, safe experience without disturbing the wildlife or doing any other kind of harm to nature.
The problem is: there is, so far, no officially acknowledged certification. It is unclear who can and will issue acknowledged certifications, which qualifications will be required for certifiation, how, where and by whom these shall be verified and so on.
The Norwegian government is working on an official certification scheme for Spitsbergen guides
This is supposed to change. The Norwegian government has asked the industry and other interested parties to give their input and to make suggestions.
Many might benefit from a well thought-through certification scheme, including the guides themselves. Payment and work conditions in parts of the industry have repeatedly been subject to criticism in recent years. It is easy for companies to replace experienced employees by newcomers when a profession is not protected. There are plenty of young people who would be willing to work for next to nothing or even for free for a season of adventure in the Arctic. This may even be understandable from the individual’s position, but it is, at the same time, a very unfortunate structure for experienced professionals who want to be just that – professionals in the sense that they want to make a living of their work.
Ideally, everyboy could benefit: tourists, the industry, the environment – and the guides
Additionally, many guides have already put a lot of effort into aquiring certifications without knowing if and by whom they will really be accepted. Essentially, any step within qualification is a good step, but if it involves more bureaucracy than anything else to document knowledge and experience that some have used and shown in everyday work in years, without being certain that it is really worth the effort, then it is understandable that a certification scheme rooted in relevant legislation may provide planning reliability that makes it worth to spend some time and effort on.