(Editor’s note: The following is an essay posted by Sylvia Gross, a Longyearbyen tourism employee, on her Facebook page Saturday afternoon. It is being republished here with minor style edits with her permission.)
I would like to take you on a small thought experiment regarding tourism in Svalbard.
As there is not much we can do anyway, many of us lost their job already or are about to lose it, and many companies and things in town are closed anyway, we maybe have the time for this now.
Please correct me if I take a wrong turn at any point, or if you disagree.
And before you continue to read, please note: I honestly believe that shutting down the world for two weeks is a good step to go, as we have to stop spreading the coronavirus, but each and every country has to follow. If every country follows now, this crisis will be soon decreasing in intensity.
But let’s take a look into Svalbard’s tourism industry now (links to official sources for figures cited by footnotes below at end of column).
Numbers of tourists and nights
In 2019 we had 77,136 tourists arriving in Svalbard. Norwegian guests stayed the longest, followed by Germans, Swiss, Britains and French. We had about 23,000 cruise tourists.
Let’s take a look into the spring season.
Last year there were 8,435 guests arrived in March in Svalbard and in April 7,654 guests. Only June to August are showing higher numbers. If we look at the number of days the guests stayed, there have been 20,022 days in March and 18,161 in April, both numbers increasing from 2018 to 2019. No other month reaches these numbers. Which means that perhaps this and next months are maybe the most important months for income in tourism during the year? (1)
Average money spent
For 2019 I couldn’t find the number, but in 2018 in average every guest spent 9,186 kroner. Foreign visitors spent on average 10,233 kroner, Norwegian visitors 7,564 kroner. Average spending in Longyearbyen was between 1,260 and 1,270 kroner per day per tourist. (2)
I don’t expect the numbers to be very different in 2020, so let’s do the math with 1,260 kroner per day per tourist. As we know already we had 20,022 days tourists spent in Svalbard in March 2019. The shutdown just happened during these days on March 13. From the same day onwards all guests from non-Nordic countries are standing under quarantine, means they cannot spend more money than for the hotel room and the hotel restaurant. In the next days all tourists have to leave Svalbard.
Loss for Svalbard
So let’s say on March 17 there will be no more trips, no more guests. Then we still have 15 days to go for the rest of the month – where we presumably (based on last year’s numbers) would have 9,688 days to come for guests to spend in our town for the rest of this month (20,022 days calculated on the 15 remaining days).
Those 9,688 days we won’t have any guests. Maybe there might come one or two people from Norway, Sweden or Finland, who haven’t been outside these countries and are still allowed to come? We don’t have any data about those, but I assume the number won’t be very high, also as the restrictions in their area are getting stricter from day to day, too. So I won’t calculate them, just keep them in your mind.
As we know in average each tourist spends per day is 1,260 kroner, times 9,688 days for the rest of March, makes 12,206,880 kroner.
Who is going to pay for that? Maybe the guests, because they won’t get a refund. Maybe the companies on goodwill, or because their contracts are saying so. Or will the government pay a certain percentage of loss to every registered company?
Looking ahead to April
If we cannot receive guests for the whole month, we will have about 18,161 days guests would have spend here (number from 2019), times 1,260 kroner per day makes 22,882,860 kroner. Who pays for that? Especially if the guests can still cancel their bookings and the companies have to bear that? Again – depends on the terms of contract.
But what’s for sure there will be a big loss for the industry on Svalbard and for the town. And we are not even thinking about the summer yet.
Norway’s government made already first steps to help the companies: See more here.
And that’s amazing. Please keep going!
But let’s go one step further in our thought experiment.
Workforce in tourism
In October 2019 we had 2,379 inhabitants in Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund together. (3)
About 39 percent are working in tourism. A total of 47 percent have been working in part-time or on seasonal contracts. (4,5)
This makes about 927 people working in tourism, or tourism-related areas, excluding all people coming here for short term and not registered. As always, most people working in tourism are employed in the high season, which is right now.
Laid off and trying to meet daily expenses
What happens to all these people? As time showed already, some of them got “laid off.” How many people will follow only time can show. And following the new law the companies only have to pay two days instead of 15:
“Reduce the number of days of payroll pay for employers on layoffs from 15 to 2 days and eliminate the waiting days for unemployment benefits for those who are laid off. At the same time, the requirement to reduce working hours in order to receive unemployment benefits during layoffs is reduced from 50 percent to 40 percent.” (6)
But would we people working on Svalbard get daily living money from NAV afterwards? Time will show. I know for myself I wouldn’t get anything if I would come into that situation, even though I’ve been working on Svalbard for some while now.
What happens to all the freelancers? To all the people whose contracts end soon anyway, and who won’t get new jobs because there are none? To all the locals or non-locals who would have worked on the ships in summer?
If these people don’t get any salary or any daily stipend, how should they pay their rent, that’s too expensive anyway, and for their food? I think in these times nobody asks to make big money, but we should be able to survive as a community, and a community exists of its people.
Please companies in town, think of your people. Please Lokalstyre and Sysselmannen, think of those 927 people in town. Maybe there are other possibilities than just fire people (or “layoff”). Decreasing salaries and hours, but keep people employed. Tidy up your storages and offices. Do all the paperwork you never had time for. Prepare everything to be ready for guests to come back, when all this is over. Polish up your internet presence. Update your working guidelines. Do marketing for 2021, so we’ll have a good start into next year. Renovate your offices, rooms and storages. Train your people, offer courses (after the 14-day period of course), so we will have better educated people working here, and a better start into next seasons and years. Maybe there are more human methods than just leave 39 percent of the town behind.
In those times we need to stick together. I’m running out of ideas, so please – What are your thoughts, ideas what we can do or what should be done to save the tourism industry and its companies and people in Svalbard?