CORONAVIRUS UPDATES FOR SVALBARD FOR WEDNESDAY: Ban on mainland travel remains troublesome, tourism safety plan OK’d, community meeting to discuss post-virus life


Isbjørnars cartoon by Haakon Sandvik from safety tip guide for Longyearbyen Lokalstyre/Sysselmannen.

Just days before the June 1 “reopening” of Norway, The Governor of Svalbard has approved the local tourism industry’s safety plan to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But foreign residents of the archipelago, the only region in Norway with no official cases of the disease, still can’t travel the mainland – and face deportation to their home country if they try.

Meanwhile, those remaining here are getting a first chance to discuss ways to return to something resembling normal at the first of a series of monthly “community dialogues” at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Kulturhuset, which can be attended in person or accessed online.

The governor has issued multiple strict warnings that no tourism activities, organized or unorganized, are allowed without an approved individual safety plan. But Svalbardposten reported Wednesday afternoon a general plan drafted by Visit Svalbard in cooperation with the governor and others has been approved, and officials from the governor’s office will be actively monitoring shops, restaurants, hotels and related businesses to make sure proper procedures are followed.

“We basically have a desire for a visible, present, pro-active police with a smile around our mouths,” Police Chief Lt. Bjørn Pedersen told the newspaper when asked if people will see more police officers patrolling the area. “We also know that more residents in Longyearbyen want more of a police presence.”

Besides Visit Svalbard there are numerous non-member businesses and individuals involved in tourism activities, whose plans are also subject to approval and monitoring. Both tourism and police officials told Svalbardposten the specific guidelines will be subject to modification and perhaps more formal enforcement as events dictate.

But while tourists from the mainland can start arriving next Monday – even if a trickle rather than a flood is expected during the first days – foreign residents in Svalbard are in effect still not considered “domestic travellers” for the purposes of the Norwegian government’s reopening plan. Norway’s border is scheduled to remain officially closed to foreigners until Aug. 20 and, while it’s possible a reevaluation on June 15 may allow citizens of Nordic countries in and further consideration in July may allow other northern European citizens to visit, as of now Svalbard’s status outside the Schengen zone means local foreigners are left out in the cold.

Local officials including Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen have stated for the past week they are hoping for a modification of the rule, but in meantime foreign residents of Svalbard – who account for about 35 percent of the population – face the worst prospects since Norway’s guidelines calls for returning them to their home country rather than Svalbard if they attempt to disembark on the mainland. Given that many local families are comprised of citizens of more than one country, it essentially means any summer holiday plans or other visits are in limbo.

Response from local residents has been heated and prolific in both traditional and social media, including an “open letter” posted online by Yann Rashid, a local guide and organizer, with the request it be signed and sent to Longyearbyen Municipal Council officials by those who agree.

“As with many other issues arising from the current outbreak, and the need to introduce and implement regulations at lightning speed, then I am hoping this nonsensical decision is no more than just a mistake that can hopefully be resolved swiftly,” the letter states. “Let the voice of non-Norwegians be heard, and heard fast, so that non-Norwegian can travel freely to mainland Norway from Svalbard. Waiting until the 15th June for a new announcement to be made by the government is too long.”

Many those who do remain in Longyearbyen – by choice or not – are facing extensive long-term uncertainty since the resumption of tourism is expected to generate only a small fraction of the business normally seen during the summer season, to say nothing of the revenue lost during the spring, and expected losses continuing for the rest of the year and beyond.

With in-person meetings now possible again, the first of a planned monthly series of meetings hosted by the Svalbard Social Sciences Initiative is scheduled at 5 p.m. Wednesday, with the theme of the first meeting focusing on “post-virus” life. Questions about what should be the same or different compared to “pre-virus” life, as well as other issues, will be discussed in large and small groups during the scheduled three-hour gathering, which is also accessible via live Facebook video.

Other news/announcements today include:

A “mini-marathon” to replace the cancelled Spitsbergen Marathon is scheduled at 10 a.m. June 6. Registration deadline is June 3.

Svalbard Brewery is hosting its Friday evening “pub” from 4-10 p.m., with limited space in pre-booked two-hour intervals.