THE REAL DARK SEASON BEGINS (AGAIN): Surge of new COVID-19 cases and restrictions exposes outbreak of panicking travellers, layoffs and destitute businesses in Svalbard

tromsovirustest

Scrambling to obtain a COVID-19 test newly mandated just hours before their flight home Friday was only the most immediate of the very painful and likely very lengthy consequences ahead.

A surge of new infections in Norway and globally is threatening economic decimation for many residents and businesses in Svalbard – again and more severely – for a second straight year just as the archipelago enters what should be peak tourism season as yet more travel restrictions were imposed late this week for the mainland and Svalbard.

At the same time, two major local tourism companies announced they’re temporarily laying off a total of 60 employees and a smaller independent company revealed its had only four guests since September.

The most immediate problem for numerous Longyearbyen residents (and the relative handful of visitors given the time of year) was getting a COVID-19 test after Norway’s government announced late Thursday afternoon proof of a negative test conducted on the mainland is now required within 24 hours of travelling to Svalbard. That set off a scramble on phones, e-mails and social media as various and sometimes conflicting information about entry requirements and where to get quick COVID-19 tests (and their sometimes substantial cost).

“It was crazy,” said Ronny Brunvoll, director of Visit Svalbard, who was in Tromsø and got an alert late Thursday notifying him he needed to be at the airport at 9 a.m. Friday for a COVID-19 test before catching a flight to Longyearbyen that departed at about 1 p.m.

Brunvoll said about 25 others showed up for the tests, which were provided free by the city of Tromsø.

“They were wonderful, absolutely magnificant,” he said of the city officials who found themselves suddenly coping with a lot of agitated and confused visitors.

Much of the agitation was due to uncertainty – the same factor causing the plague of other problems now facing local businesses and residents – as questions about what qualified as a test within 24 hours, the effectiveness of the quick tests and many other unknowns were raised.

“I went to a doctor in Tromsø yesterday and will go back to Longyearbyen tomorrow at noon,” wrote Juampe León Atienza responding Thursday evening to one Facebook alert that received roughly 100 comments within a day of being posted. “Does anyone know what can I do? The municipality of Tromsø is closed and does not answer the phone, and at the airport they cannot help me with this?”

After some conflicting responses, Atienza posted another comment noting he’d received the SMS alert (also sent to other passengers) informing of the 9 a.m. COVID-19 test at the airport.

Those travelling from Oslo weren’t as lucky, as quick tests at Gardermoen Airport in Oslo cost 1,200 kroner. Some travellers coming from aboard also noted they’d need to get up to four COVID-19 tests to enter Norway (upon which they’d need to quarantine for ten days on the mainland) and then travel to Svalbard.

Brunvoll, in an interview after reaching Longyearbyen on Friday afternoon, said the turmoil surrounding his flight Friday is just the most recent in a series of developments indicating a second dismal spring season is likely. He said the real trigger of pessimism occurred a week ago Thursday when the Norwegian government seriously stepped up its restrictions due to the rapid spread of the U.K. mutation of the virus and the potential threat it presents.

“You could see the fear in their eyes, the fear of not knowing,” he said.

Svalbard’s tourism during the past week was about 10 percent of normal for this time of year and Brunvoll said many operators are beginning to think the situation may not improve until summer at the earliest. However, he said while cancellations are occurring, they’re generally for the next two to three weeks as many travellers are hoping restrictions might be lifted in time for trips after that period.

News headlines locally and nationally on Thursday – beyond those about Svalbard’s new testing requirement – further conveyed the sense of darkness setting in financially even as the archipelago is emerging from the natural darkness of the months-long polar night.

Svalbardposten reported a total of 60 “redundancy notices” are being issued by two of the area’s biggest companies, Hurtigruten Svalbard (to 40 of its 100 full- and part-time employees) and Svalbard Adventures (about 20 half-time employees).

NRK, in an article looking at the broader local impacts, reported the small tour company Better Moments has only had four guests since September. Eivind Aksnes, company’s general manager, told NRK emergency government funding only covered between 30 to 50 percent of the companies’ fixed expenses.

“It is paradoxical that we are put in a situation where we have to sell snowmobiles or other equipment for trips we know the guests want, and then apply for support for something new we do not know if we will meet,” he said.

The Norwegian government, in addition to some emergency unemployment and expense funds last year, also allocated 25 million for Svalbard-specific tourism projects this year. The funds cannot be used for existing tourism ventures or to cover losses.

Companies had until last week to apply for the funds which will be administered by the city of Longyearbyen, but Brunvoll said it doesn’t appear that is helping many companies in dire situations now because of the time required to process applications, the need to invest funds to supplement grants received and meeting other requirements.

In the midst of all the virus-related setbacks, there’s also another government intrusion on spring tourism opportunities looming as The Governor of Svalbard is considering a travel ban in many popular snowmobiling and dogsledding areas due to the disturbances humans have caused in recent years during critical breeding and feeding times for polar bears and seals that rely on the sea ice.

“The bad news is that in this difficult coronavirus situation for tourism, in parallel, the Norwegian authorities are also trying to reduce the area for tourism development and intend to introduce new restrictive measures to visit absolutely all glaciers in winter,” wrote Timofey Rogozin, manager of the Grumant Arctic Travel Company that serves Svalbard’s Russian settlements, in a Facebook comment.

The company, due to Russian state support, has escaped the worst economic impacts and layoffs resulting from the pandemic. But it may see the same setbacks as its Norwegian counterparts in terms of the governor’s restrictions.

“This is an absurd and very dangerous situation for tourism,” Rogozin wrote. “The governor’s office says ‘Develop tourism, this is our future!” and at the same time invades and interferes with its development.”