The Arctic’s Delicate Quest for Sustainable Tourism

The Svalbard archipelago is home to polar bears, the midnight sun and the northern lights.

Home to polar bears, the midnight sun and the Northern Lights, a Norwegian archipelago perched high in the Arctic is trying to find a way to enjoy its wilderness without ruining it.

The Svalbard archipelago, located 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from the North Pole and accessible by commercial flights, offers visitors vast expanses of untouched nature, with majestic mountains, glaciers and frozen fjords.

Or, the fjords were once frozen. Svalbard is now on the front lines of climate change, with the Arctic warming three times faster than the planet.

Local coal mines – the original reason for human settlements here – have closed one after another over the years, and tourism has become one of the main pillars of the local economy, along with scientific research.

“It’s always difficult to defend because we know that tourism around the world creates challenges for all the places people visit, but also in the broader perspective of climate change”, acknowledged Ronny Brunvoll, head of the tourist office Visit Svalbard.

“But we can’t stop people from travelling. We cannot prevent people from visiting each other, so we have to find solutions,” he said.

About 140,000 people visit these latitudes each year, according to pre-pandemic data, where 65% of the land is protected.

Located 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from the North Pole, it is accessible by commercial flights.

Like the 3,000 local residents, visitors must abide by strict rules that prohibit them from disturbing animals – tracking down a polar bear can result in a hefty fine – or picking flowers in an ecosystem almost devoid of vegetation.

“You are really confronted with nature. There aren’t many places like this left,” said Frédérique Barraja, a French photographer on one of her frequent trips to the region.

“It attracts people, like all rare places. But these places remain fragile, so you have to be respectful when you visit them.

Ultra-polluting heavy fuel oil, commonly used by large cruise ships, has been banned in the archipelago since the start of the year, before a ban that will be gradually implemented across the Arctic from 2024.

The ban could be another nail in the coffin for controversial cruise ships that sail to the region.

The largest of the behemoths can drop off up to 5,000 passengers in Longyearbyen, the modest capital of the archipelago whose infrastructure, such as roads and toilets, are not designed to accommodate such large crowds.

Local coal mines have closed one after another over the years

Local coal mines have closed one after another over the years.

electric wave

While tourism already attracts a rather exclusive clientele here, some operators go further than the regulations require, such as the Norwegian cruise operator Hurtigruten, which aims to become “the most ecological tour operator in the world”.

Sustainability “shouldn’t be a competitive advantage,” said a senior group executive, Henrik Lund. “It should just give the right to play.”

The company banned single-use plastics in 2018 and now offers rides on electric snowmobiles.

It also recently launched excursions aboard a small, state-of-the-art hybrid vessel, the Kvitbjorn (Polar Bear, in Norwegian), combining a diesel engine and electric batteries.

“In idyllic exploration areas, we go electric. We are silent and have no combustion fumes,” said Johan Inden, director of marine engine manufacturer Volvo Penta.

But efforts to electrify the archipelago are currently hampered by the fact that electricity comes from a coal-fired power plant, a fossil fuel source that contributes to global warming.

Like the 3,000 local residents, visitors must follow strict rules that prohibit them from disturbing the animals

Like the 3,000 local residents, visitors must follow strict rules that prohibit them from disturbing the animals.

“Electrification makes sense, whatever the energy source,” insisted Christian Eriksen of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona.

Whether it comes from “dirty” or “clean” sources, electricity “both helps reduce emissions,” Eriksen said, citing a study on electric cars that came to the same conclusion.

Longyearbyen plans to shut down the plant by fall 2023, invest in renewable energy, and reduce emissions by 80% by 2030.

But Brunvoll, the head of the tourism board, noted the main issue was travel.

“Even when we talk about the things we can do locally, like emissions from snowmobiles or cars, we still have to recognize that the really big issue is transport to and from Svalbard, both in tourism but also for us people. residents,” he said.

“We have a per capita climate footprint in Longyearbyen that is insane.”


The highest temperature ever recorded in the Norwegian Arctic Archipelago


© 2022 AFP

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