Environment over tourism on Svalbard: New rules from January 2025 | Polarjournal
The Gåshamna landing site in the southwest of Svalbard will remain open for expedition cruise tourists. However, the eastern area will only be accessible to 39 people at a time. (Photo: Julia Hager)

The Norwegian government had long announced stricter regulation of tourism on Svalbard in favour of the fragile Arctic environment. The new rules have now been finalised and are due to come into force on 1 January 2025 – much to the frustration of tourism companies. In addition to the significant reduction in landing sites, the rules for polar bear watching are also to be tightened.

With the recently adopted changes to the environmental regulations on Svalbard, the Norwegian government is setting a completely new course: “The purpose is to protect wildlife, and one of the largest wilderness areas left in Europe,” according to a government press release from February 9, 2024.

The most important amendments already adopted by Parliament include:

  • Landings in protected areas are prohibited, except for 43 landing sites in mapped protected areas.
  • In all protected areas, the maximum number of passengers on board is limited to 200.
  • The use of drones is prohibited in all protected areas.
  • The use of snowmobiles and tracked vehicles is permanently banned on sea ice after 1 March in selected fjords, with an exception for access to cabins.
  • Motor traffic at sea may not exceed the speed limit of 5 knots at a distance of 500 metres form land outside bird cliffs in the period 1 April to 31 August.
  • Motor traffic at sea must keep a minimum of 150 metres distance from haul-sites for walruses (except for necessary access to ports, buildings etc) and the speed limit for motor traffic is 5 knots at a distance of 300 metres from haul-sites for walruses.
  • A general ban against breaking fast ice. The ban does not apply to motor traffic to keep the fairway into Longyearbyen and Barentsburg open, for supplies to Ny-Ålesund, as well as for the Norwegian Coast Guard’s performance of necessary tasks.
  • More camping activities require a permit.

The most serious of the changes listed is certainly the reduction of landing sites in protected areas, although the number of sites that may still be visited is not specified. At some of the landing sites, only 39 people will be allowed ashore at the same time.

The map attached to the new regulation marks the landing sites in protected areas that may continue to be visited by organized tours. Map: Screenshot of the Government of Norway’s regulation

The total number of landing sites on Svalbard has risen steadily since the mid-1990s, along with the number of tourists coming ashore, with the exception of the Corona years. In 2023, according to the website of Environmental monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen, it was around 240. As the majority of Svalbard is protected and therefore many landing sites are located in protected areas, the announced closure of certain landing sites will have a major impact on expedition cruises.

“It feels dramatic when Norway sets aside the right of public access and closes more than 65 percent of the Svalbard archipelago to free movement. It’s an area almost as big as Denmark,” Frigg Jørgensen, Director of AECO, the Association of Expedition Cruise Operators in the Arctic, told Svalbardposten. “The exception is a few selected locations where the immediate consequence is a major impact on these areas.”

The closure of the landing sites will only apply to organised trips by commercial providers, but not to privately organised trips, which Frigg Jørgensen also finds difficult to understand.

Polar bear watching only from a distance

The press release also states that the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment intends to submit further proposed amendments to the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act to Parliament for final approval.

Among other things, these include literally far-reaching changes to the regulations for the protection of polar bears. Accordingly, the ministry is proposing a minimum distance of 300 metres from polar bears between 1 July and 28 February. During the period when the bears are most at risk – from 1 March to 30 June – the minimum distance should even be 500 metres. In addition, there is to be an obligation to retreat as soon as a bear is sighted within these distances.

The local newspaper Svalbardposten describes how the Norwegian Environmental Protection Agency believes that the term “disturbance” of polar bears, which is already prohibited in the existing law, is not defined precisely enough. The environmental authority is of the opinion that not only the startling and following fleeing of a polar bear constitutes a “disturbance”, but also situations in which the bear changes its behavior due to the mere presence of humans. The bill stipulates that it is forbidden to “unnecessarily disturb, attract or pursue polar bears”.

“Regarding the statements that the polar bear is only curious and is not disturbed, the Ministry would like to clarify that behaviour that attracts the polar bear by its curiosity is undesirable. When a bear is attracted, its behaviour changes and it stops what it was going to do and turns its attention to the disturbing element. In addition, repeated incidents where the polar bear is attracted to humans could lead to habituation (getting used to humans),” a letter by the ministry said.

Providers of (expedition) cruises were already alarmed and raised their objections when the planned distancing rules for observing polar bears were announced last year: Tourists would want to see polar bears and photo trips and film productions could be put to an end. Although the ministry understands this, it puts the environmental aspects first: “However, it is the Ministry’s clear opinion that consideration for polar bears and avoiding disturbance and habituation are more important. This is also supported by the environmental objective that environmental considerations shall take precedence in the event of conflict between environmental protection and other interests,” the ministry continued.

Preserving Svalbard’s almost untouched nature in times of climate change

“Norway has managed, through quite unique management, to maintain Svalbard as a unique natural area. This is how we want it to be in the future, so we see that there are some areas of pressure,” Andreas Bjelland Eriken, Norway’s Minister for Climate and Environment, tells Svalbardposten.

The government’s priority is to preserve Svalbard’s unique nature and wildlife, which are already feeling the effects of climate change much more than in other parts of the world. This makes them much more susceptible to additional disruptions such as ship traffic, which has undoubtedly increased considerably, he said.

“We want to preserve the contiguous wilderness area in Svalbard for future generations.”

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

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