Up to 90 percent of Longyearbyen’s tourism employees are facing layoffs and the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic will likely last for years, Visit Svalbard Director Ronny Strømnes told NRK on Wednesday.
“We see the situation as very dramatic and that this will have a ripple effect for several years to come,” he told the Norwegian news agency.
The assessment occurred the same day Svalbardposten reported Svalbard Adventures, Longyearbyen’s second-largest tour operator, has laid off 85 percent of its employees and one-third of those are ineligible for Norway’s unemployment benefits. Many smaller companies and freelance operators have come to a near or complete halt, if not officially shutting down completely.
Adding to the massive potential impact for Svalbard employees compared to those on the mainland is more than 300 of them are ineligible for unemployment benefits because they are from non-EU/EEA countries and therefore outside Norway’s social welfare program, according to NRK: Longyearbyen has residents from more than 50 countries due to the de facto “open borders” access in the Svalbard Treaty, with Thailand and the Philippines in particular representing large segments of the town’s tourism and other service industries.
“We have to have other types of packages,” Strømnes told NRK. “This is rooted in the entire foundation of society.”
Local political and businesses leaders say they are working on proposed amendments to Norway’s emergency assistance provisions and local-level help, although most specifics remain in the works.
A ban on non-residents entering Norway is supplemented with extra restrictions for Svalbard enacted last Friday, with all visitors including Norwegians prohibited from entering the archipelago during the enforcement period. In addition, all visitors and residents under quarantine/isolation who arrived from the mainland since Feb. 27 were removed from Svalbard earlier this week.
An additional quarantine order for all residents arriving from or who have travelled to the mainland since March 13 was enacted by the city as of 6 a.m. Wednesday. and is in effect until March 27.
Tourism activity has boomed in recent years and been a critical replacement for the near-total halt of coal mining in Lonngyearbyen and other Norwegian settlements. While mining-related activities accounted for about 40 percent and tourism about 15 percent of the workforce in 2009, a decade later mining accounted for less than 10 percent and tourism roughly 40 percent, according to Statistics Norway.
A notable exception to tourism employment in Svalbard is the settlements of Barentsburg and Pyramiden, which are operated by the Russian state-owned company Trust Arcticugol. Sergey Chernikov, operations manager and a specialist field guide at Arcticugol Trust, said in an online interview that while there has been a drastic decline in visitor activity “we do not plan any layoffs and are preparing for the summer season.”
“We always have work to do and believe me nobody’s idle nowadays in Grumant,” he stated, referring to the company’s tourism subsidiary.