It’s the news we had been kind of waiting for. Kind of. Hoping they wouldn’t come in the end, at least not like this: the new rules are now scheduled to enter force on January 01, 2025. From then on, Spitsbergen won’t be the same anymore, with significant restrictions on the freedom to move around over large parts of the archipelago. The Norwegian government published their decision today (Friday, February 09).
It is largely exactly what had been put on the table well over two years ago, despite great public interest with a lot of input during the public hearing process. All this did obviously not become part of the decision as it was finally made. Observers such as AECO and the local tourism organization in Longyearbyen have expressed their disappointment over what they consider a process where the decision was made before the public discussion even started. Many had maintained hopes that the government would reconsider certain parts of the original proposal in the light of the hearing process and public discussion, but this did clearly not happen.
The areas marked red will largely be closed from January 2025.
The most important change for many will be that the large protected areas, the national parks and nature reserves, will mostly be closed for tourists. These areas comprise approximately 65 % of the Spitsbergen archipelago, as illustrated in the map.
The overview of the most important changes as far as they are currently known:
National parks and nature reserves will mostly be closed for tourists from 2025, except 43 locations selected by the government. This does not apply to individual travellers and locals.
Within national parks and nature reserves, ships may not carry more than 200 passengers.
Drones may not be used in protected areas.
A speed limit of 5 knots applies within 500 metres from certain bird colonies.
Minimum distances from walrus haulout sites: 150 m for motorized boats, maximum speed 5 knots within 300 metres.
Minimum distances from polar bears will be set, probably 300 or 500 metres depending on the season.
Breaking fast ice will be forbidden, with exceptions for shipping routes to Longyearbyen, Barentsburg, Ny-Ålesund and for the coast guard.
Permission procedures for camps will be tightened.
Bans on motorized traffic on fjord ice will be enhanced.
Some of these aspects are already to varying degrees in force or common good practice.
Larger ships within the segment known as expedition cruise ships, carrying between 100 and 200 passengers, have in recent years already largely focussed on well-established standard landing sites within the usual context of cruises of a week or so. These ships will probably be able to continue their operations with comparatively minor adjustments. And as for pricate yachts, nothing may change for them at all. Those who will be most seriously affected are most likely small ships which operate long trips of two weeks or even more, while relying heavily on a high degree of flexibility when it comes to picking landing sites in the given context of weather, ice and wildlife on a certain day in a particular area. Their operation basis will largely vanish with the new regulations.
Disclaimer: I can not claim to be a neutral observer. I am part of the tourism industry with a strong focus on small ships and long trips with many landings.
Having said that, I want to comment on the new regulations from the perspective of someone with comprehensive practical experience in the said trade. Having this experience makes me a biased, but, well, an experienced observer – that’s what comes with experience (and that’s probably about the only kind of funny part of this text).
Let’s assume the the basic idea of the whole project was to do something to protect nature. Considering the broader political picture, I am not even so sure about this. As we have seen in the recent past, Norway plans to develop oil and gas also in the Barents Sea; some of the areas we are talking about here will be open for commercial fishing also in the future, namely bottom trawling in waters deeper than 100 m in the Hinlopen Strait; and Norway has recently taken important steps towards deep-sea mining in large parts of the northeast Atlantic. Considering this whole picture, it seems ridiculous that tourists impose a threat to the environment that would justify closing an area about the size of Denmark.
This does, however, not mean that there wouldn’t be important tasks for politics. More about that soon.
Small group hiking in a remote part of Nordaustland: not possible anymore from 2025.
The small number of remaining landing sites will see heavy traffic mainly from bigger ships that will divide them amongst themselves well before the season starts probably by means of a pre-booking system that the industry will establish based on systems that area already in use. The idea of picking landing sites depending on local conditions given on any particular day will become obsolete, something that is also a safety issue, and not a small one. And private yachts who are often lacking local experience and knowledge of relevant local regulations may continue as they please. It seems safe to assume that even more small sailing boats may in the future use the loophole of running trips as private which actually are commercial. Small groups with poor management, be it because of lack of knowledge or out of ignorance, have often proven to be a greater problem for the environment than a well-managed group of 50 or 100 tourists or even more.
Good political management would establish a balance of quantity – defining upper limits – and quality – defining lower limits.
Of course there would have been – and still is – the need and possibility to introduce a good set of rules. It may seem obsolete now, but just to mention a few examples, as has been done many times in recent years by many people and organisations, often with a background of comprehensive relevent knowledge and experience: it would be an option to reduce passengers numbers even further, for example to a maximum of 100 passengers per ship (just an example – a lower number could be considered if it is accepted that quantity is the main problem) that puts tourists ashore anywhere. Also the number of ships could be limited. As in some national parks elsewhere in the world, the number of permits for ships could be limited, ideally this should have been done in, say, 2010 or 2012, when a similar discussion was already going on but traffic was still on a comparatively lower level. It is the growing number of ships and tourists that we have seen since then that many are worried about, a concern shared to some degree by this author. So, if the number of ships and tourists is considered to be the key issue, why then not reduce the number of ships and tourists? Why instead reduce the quality of the experience especially for those ships who bring a minor fraction of total visitor numbers, while leaving the largest ships and the smallest boats in relative peace? Reducing the freedom to land anywhere to a number of well-selected comparatively robust landing sites (vegetation would be an important factor in selecting such sites) could be introduced for larger ships which carry larger passenger numbers which are more likely to damage vegetation, while there is no need to restrict movements for a group of, say, twelve passengers plus one or two guides.
Considering the above-mentioned idea of defining a lower limit for quality, a thought-through, practicable guide certification scheme would be the solution, defining a minimum level of relevant knowledge that is available within any – any (before someone gets really mad with me: except locals) – group travelling Spitsbergen outside the settlements or, say, outside management area 10 (a large area mainly around Longyearbyen, covering most of Isfjord and the land area south of Isfjord from the west coast almost to the east coast). Problem solved.
It is a pity that the chance was missed to design a good regulatory framework for sustainable quality tourism. Secretary of the environment Andreas Bjelland Eriksen, in office since 2023, did not leave the impression to be particularly knowledgeable about or interested in the matter when making comments to Svalbardposten.
Before he took over in the ministry of climate and the environment, Eriksen was, by the way, undersecretary of state in the ministry of petroleum and energy.
There was a fire in Longyearbyen yesterday (Sunday, February 04) in the late afternoon in way 232 in Gruvedalen, the part of Longyearbyen east of Svalbardmuseum.
The area where a fire destroyed a house in Longyearbyen on Sunday.
Several buildings in the area were evacuated and there was a risk of the fire spreading to other houses. But this could be prevented by the fire brigade. Mayor Terje Aunevik lauded their efforts with warm words.
Nevertheless, the fire destroyed three flats completely and further damage could not yet be excluded on Monday morning. Nobody was injured. Nothing is so far known about the cause of the fire.
The community took swift efforts to take care of all concerned, but the loss of three flats is a hard blow on a housing market that is already difficult, to put it mildly.
The last fire in Longyearbyen before Sunday’s was in September 2022, when three houses with altogether 12 flats were completely destroyed. Also then, luckily nobody was injured.
Last week’s storm over north Norway influenced not only traffic in general, but also public emergency services. Several times, planes from and to Longyearbyen had to cancel the scheduled stopover in Tromsø.
Longyearbyen Airport: both scheduled and other flights depend on flight weather also in north Norway.
This is anything but unheard of in an area with frequent rough weather conditions such as north Norway, but it makes clear how remote Svalbard still is today especially when it comes to emergency services. In such conditions, medical evacuations to the mainland may be impossible for several days. This may especially be the case when only smaller propeller-driven aeroplanes are available, rather than more robust jet aircraft.
The local hospital in Longyearbyen is small and services available there are comparatively basic. In urgent cases, patients are flown to the university hospital in Tromsø. There was a case as recently as early January when a patient could not be flown out when needed, he had to be taken care of locally until flight conditions were better the next day. In a case in 2022, a patient with heart problems had to wait 8 hours for the emergency plane. In this case, the outcome was sadly fatal.
This situation also worries local authorities: the Sysselmester requested already more than once a reliable 24/7 available emergency service from responsible mainland authorities, according to Svalbardposten.