Complaints of disruptive behavior by tour companies and individual tourists at all hours and during all months. Workers being forced to leave because the proliferation of AirBnb rentals means they can’t find housing. Guides considering unionizing due to what they call abusive take-it-or-leave it contracts.
The rapid rise of mass tourism is a problem being felt across Europe and beyond, with the deluge of visitors appreciative of an area’s beauty stirring up a rapid and ugly rise of hostile feelings among people living there. But as with many things, the situation in Longyearbyen is occurring in unique and extreme ways due to a staggeringly rapid change that has seen several hundred coal mining jobs replaced by tourism workers during the past few years.
The debate about tourism has “gotten scary,” Espen Rotevatn, a Green Party member of the Longyearbyen Community Council, told High North News in an article published Monday. Originally many believed the town’s population would drop sharply due to mining layoffs, but when it became clear a couple years ago that wasn’t the case the discussion initially focused on whether tourism jobs were better than mining.
“Now it’s more about conflicts between locals, tourists and the tourism industry,” he said. “A banal, but real, example is that many people are annoyed that they drive noisy snowcats with tourists through the city late in the evening. Another thing is the full backing of year-round tourism, that we never get a break.”
The number of overnight tourists in Longyearbyen rose from about 43,000 in 1999 to about 89,000 in 2008 before declining during the next four years due to a global recession and other factors, according to Statistics Norway. The number has steadily risen since, with a record 144,144 guest nights in 2016.
The number of cruise ship visitors has also increased about 20 percent during the past decade and the rate of growth is projected to rise significantly during the coming years, particularly with the construction of a new twin-dock floating pier now in the early stages of consideration.
The employment numbers are striking: mining industry jobs represented about 40 percent of Longyearbyen’s workforce a decade ago (and despite some subsequent layoffs remained a significant presence until 2016) while tourism accounted for about 15 percent, according to Statistics Norway. Now mining jobs have dropped well below 10 percent while tourism jobs are at roughly 40 percent and rising.
That’s been enormously beneficial to many, including plenty of tourism companies reporting record profits, construction companies building new hotels and housing, a bountiful of entrepreneurs pursing new visitor ventures (often focusing increasingly on green tourism), and local workers who’ve been able to remain at or transition to jobs that might have been lost with a drop in the population.
But it’s also resulted in a population with a steadily rising percentage of foreigners compared to Norwegians – at odds with one of the government’s policy goals – and they’re paid less, have less job security and are less likely to stay long-term compared to traditional mining jobs.
The rapid change has also come as a surprise to Terje Aunevik, head of the Svalbard Business Association. But he told High North News he doesn’t see the situation as negative or out of control.
“There are few places in the world where tourism is better regulated than Svalbard,” he said. “We see an industry that works very well with local businesses, and there is close and good dialogue with both central and local authorities. So here it is just continuing the pursuit of positive solutions.”
Still, among the Norwegian government’s policy objectives for Svalbard is making it “the best-preserved high-Arctic visitor destination in the world,” Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said during a public meeting by local leaders to discuss the industry March 22. As such, meeting those environmental goals means developing new tourism projects should take time.
“We must be patient when it comes to the development of the destination,” she said, according to Svalbardposten. “I realize it’s easy to get impatient. It is important to facilitate areas of discussion. We wish to develop the tourism industry in a way that benefits the Longyearbyen and benefits Svalbard, along with the tourism industry.”
For that development to occur responsible, it’s vital for the local council and government to work with the tourism industry to ensure Norway’s government funds needed infrastructure such as walking paths, signs, lighting, restrooms and trash containers, Ronny Brunvoll, director of Visit Svalbard, said during the meeting.
“There is a need to recognize tourism as a cornerstone,” he said, according to Svalbardposten. “We may be required to make demands, but it is also important to play a good role as well The local government must coordinate with us when the authorities are visiting. Ensure that we, the local community, have the power of definition when ministers and bureaucrats from Oslo come. We must speak with one voice, not killing each other and allowing a divide and conquer.”
The biggest immediate infrastructure need is housing, since the loss of more than a 100 residences during the past few years due to avalanches and other incidents has resulted in a shortage where both public and private sector entities have been unable to find homes for employees.
The situation is so acute that Terje Nergård, who was working as a hotel receptionist, got nationwide media exposure last month after telling TV2 he and other employees were being forced to quit their jobs and leave because it was impossible to find affordable housing.
“I’ve heard about numbers of over a hundred people being without housing,” he said. “The situation is desperate. I know that many, often groups of three or four people, have to share small apartments.”
A significant part of the problem is landlords increasingly using housing for Airbnb rentals, which can earn up to three times as much as regular monthly rents, Brunvoll told the television station. He estimated 15 percent of the total bed capacity in Svalbard is now used for Airbnb bookings.
As with other mass tourism impacts, the rapid increase of Airbnb rentals is seen as a problem in tourism communities worldwide and, as with many of those areas, local leaders are considering measures that could define and limit what housing can be used for such rentals. Among the current restrictions is only the owner of a residences can offer it as an overnight rental, not a tenant who is residing there.
The shortage of housing has also meant large increases in monthly rent by some landlords, thus complicating another problem for many of Longyearbyen’s tourism employees: work contracts with low pay and abusive (and sometimes illegal) conditions that are occurring because there are far more applicants than jobs available.
About 70 guides attended a meeting with a trade union representative in February where complaints about unpaid overtime, unreasonably long work shifts, forcing year-round employees into multiple “seasonal” contracts were voiced. There were also concerns experienced guides are leaving and being replaced by inexperienced employers who may jeopardize guest safety.
“Now the guide jobs are for young hipsters who are not residents,” Elida Langstein, one of two local guides who organized the meeting, told Svalbardposten. “There are people who only get a few seasons. For those who want stability and family, it’s hard to make time. I strongly believe in a turnaround to change this. If long days are compensated for by days off you know that you will soon be free for longer periods afterwards. Then you also don’t get burned out as well.”
While the guides have talked about joining a labor union or taking other formal action as a group, they may have limited leverage due to the surplus of applicants. They are scheduled to discuss the founding of the Svalbard Guiding Association and define its goals at a meeting April 16.
Despite the scary aspects of tourism’s growth, it’s now a vital cornerstone that can and should grow, albeit with careful attention when addressing the multitude of issues regarding infrastructure, rules, types of activities and capacity, Rotevatn told High North News.
“We must realize that the management of Svalbard is something Norway does on behalf of all,” he said. “It is not only a place for us who live here and it is not our exclusive right to experience Svalbard’s nature. Most Norwegians reserve the right to visit various destinations around the world and we must almost understand that many elsewhere think Svalbard is an interesting place to visit.”