Tour disaster: Visitors flocking to avalanche wreckage leaves some residents cold

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Espen Rotevatn is grateful he can still go to his undamaged home, just below the wreckage of 11 others destroyed by last month’s avalanche, at the end of the day. He just wishes visitors weren’t there with cameras and expecting him to play the role of tour guide.

As Longyearbyen nears the beginning of peak tourism season, an increasing number of outsiders are coming by Rotevatn’s home and others still standing on Vei 230 asking about the Dec. 23 tragedy. The snowslide killed two people, and left huge physical and psychological scars on the neighborhood. He said some visitors have been overly intrusive, including one person who blocked a neighbor from getting home while asking questions.

“They can pass by there in a respectful manner,” he said, when asked if there is an acceptable way of visiting the area. “They don’t need to be up there with their iPhones. There are a lot of photos on the internet – and they’ll probably look a lot better.”

A post he wrote on a community Facebook page asking if it’s appropriate for the wreckage to be treated as a tourist attraction attracted dozens of responses. The majority stated visiting the area isn’t out of line – or at least it’s an inevitable thing locals have to accept – although it should be done respectfully without disturbing those still living there.

But some of the people in those homes said locals in other neighborhoods may not realize the extent of the problem.

“It’s beginning to get excessive,” wrote Endre Nævdal. “We are trying to get back to everyday life, which is not so easy with these surroundings. Being constantly asked to explain/tell/show what has happened here.”

Inge Lene Villumsen, a longtime Longyearbyen resident before she moved back to the mainland a few months ago, returned for a visit in January and stated it’s only natural to want to see the devastation.

“I realize it may be painful for the city’s residents, but I understand also that it is ‘interesting’ for others to see,” she wrote during the Facebook discussion. “It is also a way for us who were not there, to understand the extent of the horror that happened.”

Others argued visitors may have good intentions.

“Is it the same reason people flocked and still make pilgrimages to ground zero in New York?” wrote Anne-Karin Bekken. “Not lack of respect, but on the contrary.”
Beyond the curiosity factor, the visits can serve a practical purpose, argued Marion Hepsø, a student at The University Centre in Svalbard.

“As a UNIS student I took a walk past this place after having had a six-day safety training course, with a lot of information about avalanches in general, accidents and safety, and searching/excavation in the event of an avalanche,” she wrote. “To actually see the accident site with my own eyes helped me to realize how severe the avalanche risk can be, and probably contributed to making certain that I am extra careful to carry avalanche equipment on trips.”

“I agree that it is inappropriate that passerbys are asking you what has happened,” she added. “Perhaps the hotels should have contributed with information posters or similar. I’m sorry if it’s uncomfortable for those who live in the area, but on the positive side it is preventive to let people see it with their own eyes.”

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