SVALBARD REOPENS: Mixed feelings and still-empty streets as travel ban lifted on national holiday, but full planeloads in coming days as 30 businesses get OK for tourists

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The streets of Longyearbyen looked about the same when a nationwide travel ban ended Monday as they did the day before – largely empty due to the Penecost holiday that meant most businesses were closed. But planes from Oslo that have been mostly empty for more than two months appear to be mostly or completely full for the coming days as a community suffering the worst economic impacts in the country due to the coronavirus pandemic hopes to salvage some income from what’s expectedly to be a drastically reduced summer tourism season.

Citizens and permanent residents in Norway are now allowed to travel between Svalbard and the mainland (although foreign residents of Svalbard got that privilege only a few days ago after considerable controversy). But because Svalbard is the only region in Norway with no officially diagnosed cases of COVID-19 some residents are wary about welcoming outsiders. Also, those who are embracing and hoping to host tourists are required to get contingency plans approved by The Governor of Svalbard.

“More than 30 tourism companies submitted their contingency plans during the past week,” the governor’s office announced in a statement Sunday. “Most people can start operations on June 1. Two companies need to adjust their plans.”

Base guidelines were drafted by Visit Svalbard in cooperation with the Norwegian Directorate of Health and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Local police officers will be patrolling in increased numbers to monitor compliance, and the governor’s office and Longyearbyen Hospital will follow up on any violations.

The requirements apply to anyone involved in tourism activities – official or unofficial – and can still be submitted.

“We will process these continuously with infection protection authorities,” Lt. Gov. Sølvi Elvedahl said in a prepared statement. So far “we are consistently pleased with the work done by the individual companies.”

Locals officials have said they don’t expect a bustling amount of tourism during the initial reopening period, in part because most Norwegians typically don’t begin their summer holidays for a few weeks. But a check of flight availability at Scandinavian Airlines and Norwegian Air show few or no vacancies on daily flights between Oslo and Longyearbyen, compared to flights during the travel ban for non-residents that a month ago were carrying an average of 10 passengers a day.

Even full planes won’t come close to resembling anything close to normal summer activity, however, since the vast majority of tourists arrive via cruise ships. Norway’s borders are currently closed to nearly all foreigners until Aug. 20 and it is a near certainty the major international cruise lines bringing most of the 40,000-plus passengers in recent years will not sail here this year, although operators with smaller ships such as Hurtigruten are hoping to resume sailings to the archipelago this month or next.

Some Longyearbyen residents have expressed concern about the reopening since they consider it unlikely flight and tour operator precautions can completely prevent people infected with COVID-19 from traveling here from the mainland. An online poll conducted by Svalbardposten with 440 respondents as of Monday shows 28.6 percent are ready to welcome visitors “with flags and champagne,” flags and champagne, 15.9 percent have “hoarded and bought facemasks,” and 55.5 percent are “pulling down the blinds again.”

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