Travel to the Arctic is one of the rising branches within the tourism industry. Especially in and around Svalbard, the numbers have increased very strongly in recent years, not without consequences. After a serious incident involving a large cruise ship on the Norwegian coast, a cruise committee was set up by that country’s government to work out the recommendations and proposals to improve safety for cruise ships, especially in its polar regions. Now the committee has delivered its report.
The committee’s 168-page work was delivered to the Ministry of Justice and Emergency Services, which is headed by Emilie Enger Mehl, last week. In it, the experts list a total of 66 proposals and recommendations to improve cruise tourism in Norwegian coastal waters and thus improve safety. The committee also includes the Arctic with Svalbard and voyages to the North Pole. Here, for example, the committee proposes a maximum number for ships in the amount of 500-750 people on board. In addition, ships longer than 150 meters should be allowed to sail only under limited conditions (with traffic restrictions). Another suggestion is that within the Arctic Council “international regulation of cruise traffic to the North Pole in the face of maritime safety, emergency preparedness and rescue” should be worked out, with Norway taking the initiative.
The most essential aspects of the report concern safety. The focus is not only on the safety of passengers and crew, but also on the environment and the economy. Frigg Jørgensen, who is an expert in cruise tourism on the committee, tells local newspaper Svalbardposten: “The report points out that there is a need for a holistic approach that includes emergency preparedness, search and rescue, as well as the environment, society and the economy.” This includes improving communications in Svalbard, better training for all officers on a ship under the Polar Code, and an increase in emergency equipment in Longyearbyen to provide adequate care for all people who would need to be rescued in an emergency.
The experts would also like to see improvements to the ice chart service, which is one of the most important tools of all Arctic voyages. For at present, ice charts produced by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute are only available on weekdays. No charts are available during the weekend, leaving captains and ice pilots with only their experience to predict the course of pack ice. This needs to be changed so that updated ice maps are be available every day of the week, according to the committee. But the institute has already declined, saying that it does not have the resources to implement the proposal.
But in addition to proposals for the northern regions, the report also lists numerous proposals for Norway’s coastal waters. That’s because Norway, according to the report, has about 26% of all recorded cruise ships with at least one voyage or more in its waters in 2019, and that number is rising. But that also means more risks because Norway’s coastal waters are not easy to navigate, as demonstrated by the example of Viking Sky in March 2019. At that time, the ship was in distress due to engine damage in the middle of a storm and drifted helplessly towards the coast at Hustadvika. Of the 1,373 people on board, 470 had to be evacuated at great risk to rescuers and 23 guest were injured, three of them seriously. This is just one of 11 serious incidents since 1989 listed in the report for Norwegian and Arctic waters around Svalbard. The committee sees an urgent need for action here and calls for a similar catalog of requirements for ships and their crews as already exists in the IMO’s Polar Code.
In addition to the safety aspects for ships, people and the environment, the committee also points to the impact on the economy, which has been neglected in government decisions to date. Here, the experts would like to see better cooperation between authorities and the cruise industry. “One must recognize the industry is a resource. And I believe that the authorities must meet the industry in a more holistic way through meetings and joint exercises. The industry has a lot of knowledge,” Jørgensen tells Svalbardposten. This is especially important at this time when the industry has been hit hard by Covid. For in addition to the effects of the measures, a discussion is currently underway on Svalbard about how environmental protection and nature conservation can be reconciled with increasing tourism. And this is where local tourism representatives feel somewhat left out. Perhaps the report will be able to change this. In any case, Jørgensen is confident: “The report is a good contribution to the discussion and the authorities’ clarification of national goals and strategies for the cruise industry. In my opinion, it contains some good suggestions.”
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
Link to the report (in Norwegian) on the government website
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