RULES VS. RECOMMENDATIONS – HOW MUCH IMPACT? No-travel advisory among headline items in latest COVID-19 measures, but will it alter plans to visit Svalbard for Easter?

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While those in Norway will have to accept the sobering fact they can’t get a drink in a pub for a least the next few weeks, nearly all of the items in a long list of additional COVID-19 prevention measures announced by the government Tuesday are “mere” recommendations.

Since Svalbard is at the peak of spring tourism season with the highly travelled Easter holiday next weekend, a key question is how many on the mainland will choose to comply with non-mandatory advisories making the biggest headlines such as avoiding unnecessary travel? And if they don’t might it result in some of the recommendations becoming rules?

The average number of overnight visitors in Longyearbyen has declined somewhat the past couple of weeks compared to the weeks before – in the range of 150-200 instead of the 250-300 during what passes as the “peak” so far of a season that’s still well below the pre-virus normal. Ronny Brunvoll, director of Visit Svalbard, stated in an online interview Wednesday he believes the latest measures will continue to hurt visitor numbers even if most aren’t mandatory.

“In general it’s the same effect in Svalbard as all over – fewer guests, further collapse in income for businesses, further uncertainty for employees,” he said. “So from bad to worse, and really an urgent need to get the 40 million kroner (in Parliament’s recently approved local tourism aid) spread to the businesses. Which I’m confident the (Longyearbyen Community Council) will make sure happens.”

No-travel advisories have been issued several times since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic a year ago, which pale in comparison to mandates such as the exile of non-residents from Svalbard at the beginning of the crisis and halting of most cruise activity throughout the year.

The government has relaxed its advisories for Svalbard somewhat at times this spring – in part due to extra testing requirements and the fact the archipelago remains free of diagnosed cases. But locals were quick to debate whether the newest measures are likely to alter the thinking of those on the mainland hoping to come here.

“I probably consider Svalbard the safest place in Norway with a requirement for a corona test 24 hours before departure,” observed Karl Øystein Karlstad, a spokesman for local businesses and information technology worker, in one of the social media forums on the topic.

Besides being virus-free, Svalbard is also one of the most-desired destinations for Norwegians limiting their travel to in-country options, stated Loup Supéry, a local tour guide.

“Tourists from Norway have been coming in the past few months when it was already recommended not to travel unless absolutely necessary,” he wrote. “Norwegians like to travel in their free time and with the current situation Svalbard is the most exotic place they can travel to, so they have been coming despite the recommendations.”

But if visitors do come what they can do is being limited by the new and existing mandates, which is having significant impacts on many businesses. Pubs and restaurants, perhaps the most affected by the no-alcohol rule effective as of Thursday, are likely to again suffer the immense loss of customers that has occurred during previous alcohol bans.

“It will have serious consequences,” Steve Daldorff Torgersen, manager of several local establishments, told Svalbardposten. “Immediately there is talk of despair and frustration (and) there will be layoffs immediately.

He said Karlsberger Pub will close due to the alcohol ban, as has happened previously, and the adjacent Stationen restaurant will again reduce its operating hours.

Svalbard Brewery is also closing its serving space and Andreas Hegerman-Riis, the brewmaster for the business that was growing rapidly before the pandemic, said its beer sales to locations outside Svalbard have declined markedly due to the reduced consumption of alcohol resulting from serving bans.