Responsible tourism in Spitsbergen

It really is another world in the Svalbard archipelago. Up until not long ago it was the domain of polar bears, a very small population Longyearbyen and some science researchers living out in the wilderness. It is a highly revered and respected land mass, as are the waters around it, which is why it is protected under the international Svalbard Treaty. This means that it follows the rules and regulations of Norway, but gives 46 countries that have signed up to it the rights to be there. It also ensures the demilitarisation of the Svalbard archipelago. Oil exploitation is an issue, however, around the’ Svalbard box’ which is a much larger political issue and one that we discuss in more detail in our Arctic cruises guide. Here, we are focusing on the ways in which individual travelers can make a difference.

Wildlife & environment in Spitsbergen

The frenzy of floating hotels

"Can you imagine? 2,000 people live there and when the cruise liners arrive in summer, over 7,000 people can disembark, wandering around the otherwise quiet streets.” – Lyn Hill, Finance and office manager at Responsible Travel. Read more about her wonderful land based trip to Spitsbergen in a full interview here.

Some people don’t realise that there are alternatives to the giant cruise liners with thousands of passengers that arrive en masse in Spitsbergen for the Midnight Sun. However, we can assure you that there are plenty of smaller ships out there. That said, you don’t get tiny boats sailing or cruising these waters as they need to be equipped to deal with extreme conditions and icy waters. Our responsible tour operators have vessels which sleep 50-200 passengers and adhere to strict environmental and conservation policies. Friends of the Earth carried out research on leading cruise line companies regarding their environmental impacts, and it makes for fairly grim reading. It is also important to note that cruise companies should be working with and following guidelines laid down by the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) around Svalbard, so try asking that question to the big players.

But Svalbard is taking important steps to ensure its Arctic waters remain as undisturbed as possible. In 2015 there was a ban on heavy duty fuel oil in Ny-Ålesund and Magdalenefjorden Spitsbergen, meaning that the giant cruise ships which use this fuel have to adhere to very strict routes. According to Responsible Travel’s founder, Justin Francis: "Spitsbergen is one of the most protected and regulated places I've ever seen. Thankfully cruise ships are banned from large parts of the islands. I wish anything like it was true in the rest of the world. Plus, there are only two land areas where tourism is permitted – Area 10. It is a very small part of the archipelago."
What you can do
Apart from opting for a responsible, small cruise ship vacation in Spitsbergen, support the vital work of Friends of the Earth. No organisation has researched the impact of giant cruise ships in the way that FOE has done, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. Pun intended. Also, if you don’t like the impacts of giant cruise ships on Spitsbergen, share your photos and stories via social media. Svalbard Tourism (@visitsvalbard) might start to listen when the visitors start saying no. It is promoted as a sustainable destination, with the hashtag #sustainablelongyearbyen. At Responsible Travel, we don’t see giant cruise liners as very sustainable at all.

Human impacts

Leave No Trace should go without saying in Spitsbergen. However, sometimes in wilderness areas, particularly when they are snow covered, it is easy to overlook your impact. When you travel with a responsible vacation company, they will ensure that your impact is minimal, but it is very important to listen to all the instructions. Snowmobile transport is vital, although environmentally dog sleds may be better. However, snowmobiles aren’t simply used for leisure purposes here, but as vital means of transport. It is important not to drop any litter, even the core of an apple or a banana skin. Although good luck storing a banana in your backpack – it will be frozen within minutes. Basically, all traces of human activity should be removed, be it bonfires or toilets. Strict wildlife watching guidelines must also be adhered to, with stringent rules issued by the Governor of Svalbard, but also the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO).
What you can do
Take everything away with you, bring little or nothing in the way of packaging and make sure your tour operator adheres to the same principles. Don’t pick any wildflowers or move stones. And that includes building arty cairns or, of course, engraving stones.
Here are some of the important wildlife watching guidelines:
Stay clear of Arctic fox dens, particularly between June to mid August when mothers are giving birth. Fox dens are usually close to cliffs where sea birds thrive. Breeding birds and nests should be given a very wide berth, particularly around cliff areas, as they are very sensitive to disturbance. There are many strict guidelines when it comes to watching cetaceans in the wild. Never force your way into a pod, always letting them drift towards you, keeping your voices low, and not staying around them for more than about 30 minutes if you are as close as 300m. Do report any boat drivers who do not adhere to these rules. For more details see our Responsible whale watching guide. Don’t spend too much time around reindeer as, due to the extreme climate, they need to use their energy to forage. And never touch them, alive or dead. Keep a distance of at least 100m from seals and be very peaceful around them. Don’t follow swimming seals. There are lots of rules around watching walruses, so make sure your guide is aware of them. Such as never stand between a walrus and the sea, don’t make a half circle around them but watch in a clump, and never go closer than 30m from a mother and calf. If there is any sign of distress from the walrus, retreat slowly. Don’t go near a swimming walrus - they have tusks, remember? As for polar bears, always adhere to the group leader’s rules. They should always keep at least 30 meters between the zodiac and the bear, whether on land or ice.

People & culture in Spitsbergen

When a giant cruise ship docks in Longyearbyen, many residents lock their doors. This is against the norm, as the safety advice is for house and car doors to remain unlocked so that people have somewhere to escape to in the event of a polar bear wandering down the main street. However, the residents lock up because it is not unusual for the cruise passengers to wander into their houses and have a peek, like it is a folk park. Given the huge size of the ships and the tiny size of the town, when the tourists disembark they can double or triple the size of the population within minutes. The chances are, if you are reading this page, you would never dream of doing such a thing, but it is worth remembering that this unique place is home to people too.

There are also specific rules about protecting cultural heritage in Spitsbergen. Interestingly, everything that dates to before 1946 is protected, even if it is an old bottle on the shore, a rusty nail or an old fishing rod. There are also certain traditions such as hunting that upset visitors, but it is important to read up on the history before you go to gain a greater understanding. At Responsible Travel, we don’t support tourists eating whale meat, for example, but we understand that for now it is part of life for local people and that changes don’t happen overnight.
What you can do
As well as respecting people’s privacy, you can also consider traveling out of peak season to lessen your impact on town life and also help sustain vital businesses by using land based activity providers, such as husky mushers and so on. Visit cultural heritage sites such as the Airship Museum, Svalbard Museum and Longyearbyen Church, the world’s northernmost church.

Responsible tourism in Spitsbergen

All group trips to Spitsbergen are accompanied by armed guides to protect against polar bears, and it is important to know that firearms are a way of life here. But so is respecting them, and there are very strict laws around this. For example, you are not allowed to carry a weapon inside any public building, from the supermarket to the museum. If there is no storage available for a firearm, you must ensure that it is visibly unloaded. A responsible sea captain will always respect the recommended code of practice when it comes to approaching calving glaciers. 200m is the recommended distance to prevent injuries from falling ice as well as avoiding the waves they can create. There have been a handful of rabies cases found on Spitsbergen over the last 10 years, particularly in Arctic fox and reindeer. It goes without saying, avoid all contact with living but also dead animals. Norway is one of just three countries which still allows commercial whaling, contravening the International Whaling Commission’s commercial whaling moratorium. Up to 1,000 minke whales are hunted each year, and whale meat is served in Svalbard. We do not recommend eating it as it is a direct threat to whale species. Huskies are working dogs, and while they should always be properly fed, regularly checked by vets and have appropriate shelter, visitors should not expect them to be treated like a pet dog. As with sheep dogs and sniffer dogs, the huskies love their work; pulling sleds is a joy rather than a punishment. Our financial controller, Lyn Hill, explains: “At the husky centre there are about 100 dogs, all with individual names and their own kennels. At first it seems a bit strange seeing them all tied up, because in our culture if we see a dog tied up the connotations are not great. However, you have to get your head around the fact that these are working dogs, and they are sitting there quite happily curled up in the snow.”
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: Anette Holmberg [Burgerbukta Glacier: Gary Bembridge] [Expedition boat: KMphoto Expeditions] [Group setting off: Roderick Eime] [Houses: Bernt Rostad]
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