Longyearbyen and all of Svalbard have been experiencing turbulent times for a while. Not only the effects of the COVID crisis, but also Russia’s heightened polemics about Norway’s sovereignty, the discussion about the meaning and purpose of Arctic tourism and, last but not least, environmental and nature conservation in the high Arctic are topics of concern for the people of Longyearbyen. Also, it’s the latest developments and assessments by experts about possible foreign investments in companies or real estate that have raised concerns and considerations as to how things should proceed in the Norwegian-managed archipelago.
Marcel Schütz, co-owner of Spitzbergereisen AS, a local tour operator in Longyearbyen, is also one of those who are currently dealing with the issues. Speaking to PolarJournal, the Swiss, who has lived in Longyearbyen since 2010, explains what he considers the main issues and what scenarios could be a solution for Svalbard’s future.
Marcel Schütz, there is a lot of discussion at the moment about sovereignty, the Svalabrd Treaty and Norway’s role in it. For example, Russia is calling for greater opening with regard to Svalbard.
That is true and that the treaty and Norwegian sovereignty are being discussed is ok – but unpleasant for Norway, of course. But Norway should see it as an opportunity to consolidate sovereignty. The Treaty is now 100 years old and indefinitely – and it would be written in much more detail if it were to be set up today. In this way, Norway actually keeps the cards in its own hands in order to manage the archipelago in the future without any doubt. But this is increasingly being questioned by other countries. Russia in particular, which makes a historical claim to Svalbard, wants a more politically open approach to the archipelago. And with China as the new, emerging key figure in the Arctic, especially economically, Norway’s sovereignty is being challenged. The main argument to talk about the Treaty is that Norway interprets the points of the Treaty for its own benefit. This is because we are talking about an advantageous geopolitical position in the high Arctic.
Do you see a loss of Norwegian sovereignty?
We have an international background in Longyearbyen, but we are a Norwegian community and work for the majority of Norwegian companies and thus indirectly stand up for Norway politically and strategically. However, since many companies are registered in Norway but are not state-owned enterprises, I do not believe that the country has the desired control. What if Norwegian companies on Svalbard, including large companies, are acquired by foreign companies? Now a topic with Hurtigruten and China. I think there is a certain amount of respect to that. Corona doesn’t make things any better, as some local companies – especially in tourism – aren’t doing very well, or they’re struggling with long-term consequences. For me, therefore, it would make sense to give more state support to the tourism industry on Svalbard in general. What is very interesting is that Hurtigruten Svalbard wants to sell all their properties and, according to Per Arne Totland, will probably sell it to the highest bidder. Norway and national security would be called upon to do something again. Store Norske – a state-owned company that has been active in the coal industry on Spitsbergen since 1916 and is the largest local property owner, is currently very interested in buying all the properties of Hurtigruten Svalbard. By this,in my opinion, the state has an indirect influence on the tourist industry and who knows, perhaps Store Norsk will soon become a tourist player, as indicated by the managing director last October.
Are you standing up for Norway with your company?
For me personally, Norway is doing a good job and yes, I stand behind Norwegian sovereignty. It should not be forgotten that this international flair, which virtually all people in Longyearbyen find unique and often choose as one of the reasons to be here, is supported by Norway. Who knows what this would look like if another state would be the administrative power. Personally, there is certainly room for improvement in certain areas. A recent example is the compensation during the Corona period. NAV (Labour and Social Administration) pays fair support to all Norwegians and EU/EFTA citizens on Svalbard who are employed in a Norwegian company and sent in short-time work. However, this does not apply to other nationals, some of whom have worked here for longer and paid taxes. This means that one is lucky because he is not 100% short-time and the other is facing existential problems, in extreme cases even forced to leave. And precisely because non-Norwegians in Norwegian companies also indirectly hold the geopolitical position that is important for Norway, I find this absolutely wrong and, in my opinion, should be changed immediately. It is clear that COVID-19 is a special case, as you will not be able otherwise to receive social assistance benefits on Spitsbergen. But this is another political issue.
In addition to the political situation, there is also a lot of talk about environmental issues on Svalbard and Norway’s role in it. What happens in terms of sustainability?
In terms of sustainability in the various areas, Norway is doing a great deal. There are, of course, certain challenges in everyday life, such as electricity production and district heating for Longyearbyen. At the moment, we are still using the coal mined from our own coal mine. However, alternative solutions are sought and projects are also financed. I support the fact that alternatives are not rushed to be decided and that test projects are run. Just lately, Longyearbyen decided to rely on hydrogen as an energy source. A contract with Varanger Kraft (UK) is to be concluded later this year and a pilot project will start. Final implementation is set for 2025. So the goal is to make Longearbyen issuing less emissons. People also talk about “emission-free” again and again, which I personally find difficult. A lot is also happening in terms of tourism. Norway has also come under some political pressure here and is reassessing the situation in terms of nature, environmental protection and tourism.
How do you feel as a tour operator on the topic of “Arctic tourism”?
Personally, I am absolutely behind what we do locally on Spitsbergen in the tourism industry, otherwise I would not be here. The challenge in the future, however, is the figures. I have a clear opinion on this and I think the whole tourism sector should be made more localised.
What do you mean?
The Spitsbergen Treaty in Article 3 states:
The nationals of all the High Contracting Parties shall have equal liberty of access and entry for any reason or object whatever to the waters, fjords and ports of the territories specified in Article 1; subject to the observance of local laws and regulations, they may carry on there without impediment all maritime, industrial, mining and commercial operations on a footing of absolute equality. They shall be admitted under the same conditions of equality to the exercise and practice of all maritime, industrial, mining or commercial enterprises both on land and in the territorial waters, and no monopoly shall be established on any account or for any enterprise whatever.Article 3, Svalbard Treaty
This means that non-Norwegian and non-local companies based are allowed to operate on the archipelago under local laws. Personally, however, I think Norway should strengthen certain local laws, because what happens is that local companies are sometimes given market disadvantages. Foreign companies wishing to operate here can theoretically use their own employment conditions. But we pay Norwegian wages, Norwegian insurance and have costs that are higher than on the mainland, for example due to housing shortages or freight costs. So we forget that this discriminates local companies. And, in my opinion, these are precisely the kind of companies that could be used together politically to cement Norway’s claim to sovereignty. This problem exists not only locally on Spitsbergen, but also at national level in Norway. Consider, for example, the case with the Hungarian low-cost airline Wizzair, which offers national routes at less than EUR 20 and at the same time wants to prohibit its employees from organising themselves. Our government must keep digging deep in its pockets in order to keep its own national airlines alive and thus to supply all the major national routes. And with offers such as those from this low-cost airline, Norwegian airlines are under additional national pressure and their their current weakness is exploited. How healthy is an open market economy under such circumstances, I wonder. In my opinion, appropriate legislation should strengthen the local economy. This brings benefits for both the local population and Norway itself, including in the Svalbard question.
What do you think would be a solution for Svalbard?
In the very near future, one must start to hire only guides trained on Spitsbergen, no matter where the official headquarters of the company is. Thus, all firms would have the same conditions with regard to employment criteria, because it would be a local law. In this way, all firms would have to recalculate their costs and there would be an approximation of cost equality. One step further would be that these locally trained guides should generally receive fair minimum wages. The minimum costs for all companies operating here would be similar. Such a law would not make Svalbard cheaper. But nobody wants “Mallorca” tourism here. However, I believe that many would benefit from this: nature, our foundation, which must be treated with the utmost respect; The customer in terms of safety, which is guaranteed by locally trained guides; The employed guide who receives fair compensation, no matter who she/he works for; The local organiser, as it finds a fairer market environment; And above all Norway as a sovereign state, as it would strengthen local companies on Svalbard in the future and cannot be dominated or even bought up by outside companies, thus losing an argument for Norway’s sovereignty.
Another point should be the further upgrading of the tourism industry in the administration of Svalbard. There are currently fifty employees recorded on Sysselmannen’s website, and only two of them are directly responsible for the travel industry. For me, this department is understaffed. Before Corona, the tourism representative “Visit Svalbard” alone had 137 registered companies, which are active in tourism on Spitsbergen. Tourism, together with research, is now one of the strongest income sectors for the local economy. Greater control and cooperation with all stakeholders should therefore be sought here, rather than simply working with prohibitions and restrictions in the future. I see this trend at the moment.
How do you see the future of Spitsbergen?
Exciting and with many challenges. Our industry has changed a lot in the last 10 years and administratively we have stopped at 9 years. I hope that this will change shortly and that this will be reconsidered. Norway will further consolidate sovereignty and nature and man can live in harmony despite local change and modern times.
The interview with Marcel Schütz was conducted by Dr. Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
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