POLITICIANS TARGET TOTS AND TOURISTS: Visitor tax, private kindergarten among priorities for new city council majority


A tax on tourists, separating the harbor from other local government operations and allowing privately operated kindergartens are among the proposals in a platform drafted by the new, more conservative majority of the Longyearbyen Community Council as it officially took office Monday.

The tax would be used for facilities related to the booming tourism industry such as public toilets and walkways, while changing the current city-run kindergarten program would include goals such as eliminating a mandatory three-week holiday period during the summer many parents have complained about. Meanwhile, planning is underway for a new and larger dock to accommodate anticipated cruise, commercial and research ship usage, with some officials favoring some level of privatized investment and ownership.

Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen, a Labor Party member who had held the job for the past four years, told Svalbardposten he is particularly pleased the platform addresses issues of pay and working conditions that have become contentious as the near-elimination of coal mining means a radically changing workforce is often facing greater insecurities.

“The platform is also clear in the tourism industry direction and has a clearer environmental profile,” he told the newspaper. “There is a lot here that is offering guidance and that will make my job as the leader of the local council easier.”

The platform strongly suggests how private enterprise may play a larger role in local policymaking, which is a key reason conservative-leaning council members said they were willing to form a majority with the longtime incumbent Labor Party instead of the seemingly more compatible Liberal Party. Labor won five of the council’s 15 seats to the Liberal Party’s four in this month’s election, despite a virtual tie in the vote, putting both in a position to gain a majority by wooing the five seats won by the Conservative (three) and Progress (two) parties who agreed before the election to join as a block.

Privatizing kindergartens (and other largely government-run functions such as residential property management) and separating harbor operations were among the Conservative Party’s priorities during the campaign. Among the platform items favored by the Progress Party are a four-year freeze in road fees businesses and endorsing paternity rights for non-married foreign residents who have children born in Norway (a change that would have to be approved by Parliament).

The tourist tax is intended to offset the increasing costs of providing public services, Olsen told NRK. Svalbard had about 37,000 visitors in 2012, but the total increased to 72,544 last year and is on a similar pace this year.

“Today we welcome as many tourists a year as Madonna does at a concert,” Olsen told the news network.

Visitors arriving for the past decade by boat and plane have paid a 150-kroner tax that goes to the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund, which is controlled by The Governor of Svalbard. Council members drafting the platform say they’re seeking both more money and more control over how it’s spent.

The nest step will be discussing the issue with central government officials, especially since numerous towns on the mainland are considering a similar tax. Last fall the national Labor and Liberal parties endorsed legalizing such taxes, thus giving the proposal a majority in Parliament, but the Conservative Party – which is head the four-party governing coalition – said they will not bring up the matter while they are in power, according to NRK.