Svalbard’s opening goes ahead, but… | Polarjournal
Just in time for the beginning of summer on Svalbard (when the snow spike on the Operafjellet dissolves), it was announced that in addition to the Nordic countries (apart from Sweden), the Schengen and EU states will now be allowed back in. However, there are certain limitations. Photo: David Engmo, Svalbardposten

Since Svalbard put itself on a COVID-19 lockdown in March, Longyearbyen and the archipelago have been about as easy to reach for travelers as Mars. Fortunately, the community was spared a virus outbreak and a gradual opening was launched on June 1. Now the Norwegian government has announced that from July 15, people from the Schengen states and the EU (including EFTA) will be allowed to return to Svalbard without quarantine.

“The assessment of Helse Nord RF (Health Service North) indicates that it is possible to open up tourism to and around Svalbard”

Norway’s Minister of Health Bent Høie

Minister of Justice Monica Maeland announced the news in a press release yesterday, along with the Minister of Health and the Minister for Transport. She went on to say that it was important for tourism on Svalbard to be involved in the opening up of Norway. Therefore, both flights and ships of up to 500 passengers, who are allowed to operate in strict compliance with protective measures, should also be allowed to call in Svalbard again. According to Minister Maeland, after investigations and assessments by the various authorities, the health and rescue organisations are ready to receive a larger number of tourists on Svalbard. “The assessment of Helse Nord RF (Health Service North) indicates that it is possible to open up tourism to and around Svalbard,” writes Health Minister Bent Hoie

About 63,000 visitors arrived on Svalbard last year, many of them by ship. Due to the protection measures against COVID-19, tourism completely collapsed and left an economic hole of immense size. Photo: Julia Hager

Opening yes, but…

But ministers also make it clear that health and protection of the local population and tourists is still a priority. Transport Minister Knut Arild Hareide, for example, has ordered that no tourists charter flights be allowed. The vessels are also subject to strict measures in addition to the existing restrictions on the maximum number of passengers. Ships with more than 500 passengers on board are still not allowed to call in Longyearbyen. Smaller ships, which include the expedition ships, are only allowed to operate at Longyearbyen and Svalbard with half the maximum possible capacity. In addition, the opening of entry applies only to those Schengen and EU countries that do not have any national quarantine measures active and have their Corona cases under control at home. The government also reserves the right to continue to make adjustments in any direction.

Many of the expedition tour operators had already cancelled their trips this year months ago and were trying to rebook the passengers until next year. There is also the question of what to do with crews and guides who do not originate from the EU or Schengen area. Photo: Michael Wenger

Uncertain development despite opening up

Despite the joy of the news and the hope in Longyearbyen that the number of visitors can still increase, it is already clear that this further step of opening up does not save the season. Many of the 63,000 visitors who arrived in Longyearbyen last year came by ship. And the shipping companies cancelled their trips to the Arctic archipelago months ago and are preparing for a changed Antarctic season. The only company currently offering Svalbard cruises with expedition ships is Hurtigruten. But even from, there it became known that the booking numbers are only small and are around 30 percent. Most people who have been excited about an Arctic trip this season have already rebooked or cancelled it. In addition, there is still a ban on entry for persons outside the Schengen area and the EU. Tourism officials in Longyearbyen are currently reporting almost 140 overnight stays a week, with a slight rise.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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