Photo by Visit Svalbard.
The lengthy and increasing complaints from local businesses and politicians about the lockdown of Svalbard due to the coronavirus pandemic were finally addressed – to a degree – on Friday, as the Norwegian government announced the archipelago will be able to receive visitors from the mainland without a quarantine beginning June 1. International visitors are still banned.
In addition, the mandatory 10-day quarantine is being lifted for residents, their family members and guests, and workers as of 6 p.m. Friday, according to The Governor of Svalbard. The quarantine for visitors to the archipelago is being lifted on June 1 to coincide with the national timeline.
Svalbard is the last place in Norway with a mandatory quarantine for all arrivals, with the latest 10-day confinement originally supposed to remain in effect until May 18. But the archipelago is also the only place in Norway with no officially diagnosed cases of COVID-19 due to the extreme restrictions exacted due to the area’s limited emergency resources, which combined with an increasingly optimistic outlook on the mainland resulted in the government’s announcement.
“With such a positive development, the government is now opening up for tourists from the mainland to travel to Svalbard from June 1,” Justice and Public Security Minister Monica Mæland said during a press conference.
The decision means all persons with a work/residence permit in Norway and is currently on the mainland can visit Svalbard. International visitors are still banned as Norway’s borders remain closed to non-essential persons who are not permanent residents.
“We obviously wanted a full house this summer, but that is not the case now,” said Visit Svalbard Director Ronny Strømnes in a prepared statement Friday.
Nonetheless, the tourism agency posted a message on its Facebook page declaring the announcement “great news” and the delayed reopening to international tourists expected, “so please be patient.”
Commercial flights between the mainland and Longyearbyen have continued six days a week during the crisis, due in large part to the government subsidizing them, but officials estimate only about 10 people a day have been aboard due to the quarantine restrictions. Local business and political leaders, as well as those at the national level, are expecting most or all summer tourism to be limited to domestic activity.
Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt emphasized that even the limited reopening of the area to local tourism will take place with strict guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus. A draft of the local guidelines compiled with the help of Visit Svalbard and other local entities is now being reviewed by national health officials.
“The industry guidelines and the requirement for specific plans for each business will apply to the entire tourism industry in Svalbard, not just those organized under Visit Svalbard,” she said in a prepared statement. “The unorganized tourism industry must, in the same way as the organized operators, have concrete written plans for how to manage infection prevention responsibly.”
About 90 percent of Longyearbyen’s tourism workers have been laid off due to the crisis and the archipelago’s unemployment rate is the highest in Norway. Mæland said the harshness of the impact means “it is important that tourism and business in Svalbard are now provided with predictability, and can start planning to accommodate tourists from the mainland” at the same time leisure travel restrictions are lifted nationwide, but the approach must be gradual.
Multi-day cruises in Svalbard present special challenges, for instance, she said. While all cruise companies have cancelled their large ship sailings to the archipelago this year, officials are now assessing guidelines for Hurtigruten and other smaller vessels still expected to offer voyages.
“We will also consider mechanisms to limit the total number of tourists visiting Svalbard at any given time,” Mæand said. “This is important in the interests of overall preparedness and in order for the industry to be able to operate a contagious defense.”
Måland also announced Friday an plan to offer “travel home” financial assistance to laid-off Svalbard employees from non-EU/EEA countries, who are exempt from unemployment and insurance benefits in Norway’s “normal” system. A previous plan gave such residents up to 20 work days of compensation – far fewer than the amount available to other workers.
This is a developing story with updates in progress.