The pandemic of the past two years had taken a heavy toll on tourism worldwide. Even Svalbard, where the sky hung full of violins for tourism officials in 2019, had to hit bottom hard. Sealed off by Norwegian protective measures, it was cut-off for a long time from COVID, but also from income from foreign tourists. That’s why they were all the more hopeful this summer that guests would flock to the high north again. This hope came true, as the figures now show at the end of the season.
As the polar night slowly comes over Svalbard and Longyearbyen, not only in the streets and houses more lights shine again. The faces of those responsible for tourism should also be beaming when they look at the numbers of guests and overnight stays this summer. The record level of 2019 overnight stays was almost reached again this year. A total of 16,938 overnight stays were recorded by Visit Svalbard between June and October. That’s just 335 fewer than in the summer of 2019 and a 52 percent increase over last year, Visit Svalbard CEO Ronny Brunvoll tells Svalbardposten. Throughout the summer, 800 of the approximately 1,000 beds in the hotels and lodges were occupied. And the guests that stayed in Longyearbyen were again more international. Although Norwegians again accounted for the lion’s share of visitor numbers with 44 percent, there was again a large increase from Europe with 1570 overnight guests from France, 1469 from Germany and 1033 from Italy. And 845 guests from the USA showed that people on the other side of the Atlantic also want to travel to Svalbard again.
Not only those guests who stayed in Longyearbyen and explored the area with day trips were more frequent again. The number of ship visits also reached triple digits again this summer. The Port Authority reports that by the end of the year, more than 500 so-called “calls”, i.e. stops of ships, will be recorded. Most of them were expedition ships that showed their passengers the beauty of the Arctic, and had to dock in port again and again to exchange guests. More precise figures are yet to be published by the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators AECO. But even larger cruise ships could still sail to Longyearbyen this year and give their guests at least a touch of the Arctic.
The positive figures published by Visit Svalbard can indeed be considered a success. Because the tourism season was anything but problem-free. Even before the start of the tourist season, Russia’s sudden attack on Ukraine drove fear sweat on the foreheads of many operators. Because Svalbard is actually right on Russia’s doorstep, and Moscow is firmly anchored on the archipelago with Barentsburg and Pyramiden. In addition, the careful planning of many expedition ships had to be rewritten with the closure of the Russian Arctic and the landing sites on Svalbard were in even greater demand. Then came the weeks-long strike by SAS pilots, which caused many ship operators and tour providers to sweat heavily, and they had to cancel some of the planned tours. The sudden increase in the number of ships in the port of Longyearbyen was also a major logistical challenge, especially on land, as the number of buses for transporting guests for excursions, to the city and to the airport is limited. In addition, providers and hotels have also had to contend with staff shortages and work with inexperienced personnel. And vessel accidents and lapses in the implementation of gun laws and visiting rules in the various areas complete the list of problems recorded in Svalbard this season.
Some of these problems will certainly remain in the coming season and the local tourism industry is facing great challenges. In particular, new regulations on tourism, which are currently being debated in Oslo and are causing great uncertainty among the various stakeholders, plus the impact of the war on the region are at the moment only masked by the upcoming polar night. However, like Longyearbyen, they are illuminated anew with the reappearance of the sun in February. But for now, the Arctic archipelago can enjoy the successful season and the shining lights and faces.
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
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