BETTER GUIDES AND FEWER TOURISTS? Norway’s government seeks certification requirements for guides, arguing for safety and protection even if it means fewer visitors

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Requirements for guides in Svalbard to be certified to further a goal of safer and more environmentally sustainable tourism are being drafted Norway’s government, with the acknowledgement “this may lead to fewer tourists choosing Svalbard.”

But while the general objectives of the regulations were released Tuesday, the specifics – including whether they’ll address a multitude of concerns raised by guides and some others in the industry including labor workshift, safety, wage and other alleged unfair practices – remain to be seen.

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Tourists take photos at the Fredheim trapping station at the entrance to Templefjorden, an area The Governor of Svalbard closed to motor traffic this spring due to people disturbing polar bears and seals in the area. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“We are looking at how we can design such a requirement for certification of tourist guides to ensure that they have sufficient expertise on the environment and safety in the field,” said Minister of Public Security Ingvil Smines Tybring-Gjedde, part of the Ministry of Justice and Public security that has administrative oversight of Svalbard, in a prepared statement. “In addition, the regulations on the disturbance of polar bears, traffic and camp stays will be tightened.”

Minister of Trade and Industry Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, in the same press release, said “the certification of guides is an absolutely necessary measure” to protect wildness and cultural heritage areas, and ensure sustainable tourism development in Svalbard.

“This may lead to fewer tourists choosing Svalbard, but will ensure a good tourism industry with good profits for the local players,” he said.

The percentage of Svalbard’s tourism workforce has grown from about 15 percent in 2009 to nearly 40 percent in 2019, and now account for about 600 full-time jobs in the archipelago. At the same time there has been a huge increase in foreign residents (from 14 percent in 2009 to 36 percent in 2019) representing a large portion. That’s been accompanied by a large number of new companies and independent operators – many officially based outside Norway – with some critics arguing many newcomers lack the proper training for Svalbard’s challenging environment and in some instances may be using loopholes to bypass Norwegian regulations due to Svalbard’s exemption from many of them.

“When looking at submissions of tour messages to The Governor of Svalbard we have about 150 tour operators in 2019, but only 35 of these are part of the organized tourism industry on Svalbard,” Ronny Strømnes, chairman of Visit Svalbard, told TV2.

As such, there have been increasing complaints about tour operators disturbing polar bears and other wildlife (resulting in traffic bans in popular snowmobile areas the past two years), venturing into avalanche-prone and other hazardous territory without proper knowledge.

“Yes, it is time and it is needed,” Erlend Marø, a Svalbard Wildlife Expedition guide, told the television station. “There are too many near-accidents, and they have no knowledge of nature and the conditions we have up here, and that is problematic.”

Controlling the impacts of tourism was declared a top priority of the new Longyearbyen Community Council following last fall’s elections, with a tourist tax among the highlights of a platform drafted soon afterward. In addition, guides have been meeting with labor organizations and other officials for the past two years to discuss alleged abuses and violations of workplace regulations including excessive and sometimes unpaid hours, and excessive use of sequential seasonal contracts to avoid the costs and regulations of full-time employees.

Smines Tybring-Gjedde emphasized working conditions will be considered when drafting the new regulations.

“The government is concerned that all players in the tourism industry operate with standards that ensure safe and stable working conditions for their employees – and the safety of those who buy the services,” she said.

No specific timeline for the draft of the regulations or public response period after was announced.

A number of laws and regulations aimed at reducing tourism impacts have been enacted in recent years (i.e. a heavy oil ban and increasing off-limit areas for cruise ships), along with guidelines by tourism industry entities that aren’t legally enforceable (i.e. a ban on single-use plastics for some ship and hotel operators). Among other guide-related measures is an Arctic Nature Guide program in Svalbard some employers consider essential for prospective employees without similar other training or experience.

Current tour operator requirements at The Governor of Svalbard’s English-language website state “everyone who takes participants out in the field should have sufficient and relevant knowledge” in a range of areas including safety, environmental awareness, and other requirements of Norwegian law and the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act.