The government’s protective measures against COVID have brought tourism in Norway to a virtual standstill. Svalbard, where tourism is a major source of income, has been particularly hard hit. After lengthy discussions and many appeals, Svalbard received two financial injections from Oslo to cushion the impact of the cancelled seasons. Responsible for the distribution of the money is the local council, which had also set the criteria for the distribution. Among them is a paragraph that has made for particularly heated discussion in this otherwise cool place.
Two financial aid packages worth a total of 65 million kroner are to be distributed by Longyearbyen Lokalstyre (LL), the local council, to the various local tourism businesses. At least, that is what the government stipulated when the aid package was agreed. The criteria to be applied as to who receives how much money have been worked out by the LL. The paragraph that has caused a lot of irritation and headaches among some companies is paragraph 5a on the designation of Norwegian companies with foreign owners. It states that at least 34 percent of the company must be owned by a Norwegian citizen OR the company (which is registered and has paid taxes in Norway) must have been operating in Spitsbergen for at least 10 years. A passage that is an affront and a slap in the face to some long-established companies.
One person who is affected by this criterion but does not want to accept it silently is Marcel Schütz, one of the two owners of the tour operator company “Spitzbergen Reisen AS”. He says the paragraph is inappropriate and discriminates against those companies, like his, that have been creating jobs and tax revenue in Longyearbyen for years “We are a Norwegian corporation. We speak and write in Norwegian, pay our taxes in Svalbard,” he explains in an interview with the local newspaper Svalbardposten. In his opinion, the paragraph must be deleted as it is harmful to some companies and is also not applicable to limited companies. Help also comes from Visit Svalbard chief Ronny Brunvoll and various political parties. One solution would be to change the period from 10 to 5 years, as applied on the mainland. This would allow some firms to apply for assistance. That, in turn, is out of the question for the LL. President Arid Olsen told Svalbardposten that this is handled differently on the mainland because Norway, as an EFTA state, is bound by an agreement with the EU, but Svalbard is not. Therefore, Svalbard can set its own criteria within the framework of the Svalbard Treaty, he says.
So it’s a stalemate? Not quite, as the LL’s decision on any application can be appealed and can go all the way to the Ministry of Justice responsible for Svalbard to challenge the decision. But that is little consolation to Marcel Schütz and those who agree with him. “At the end of the day, this is about something that should have helped us get out of this predicament, not made it more difficult,” he tells PolarJournal. Indeed, the question of the logic of the paragraph arises when one considers that Spitsbergen Reisen AS is not supposed to receive any money from its local council, but at the same time has received a grant from the Norwegian State in order to be able to restructure. “The money we received from Innovation Norway is earmarked, while the money from the aid package should help us and everyone else cover our expenses,” he explains. He doesn’t want to give up: “The paragraph undermines the principles on which the community in Longyearbyen is based, namely equality, solidarity and trust. And that’s why it has to go.”
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal