Which means the only visiting ships similarly stand out for those looking out into the harbor, beginning with the Polarstern science vessel as is spends a few days “in town” before heading to the ice far north of Svalbard to resume the year-long international MOSAiC research expedition. Also arriving this week were the German ships Maria S. Merian and Sonne carrying replacement personnel and supplies. But because of strict rules about passenger ships and foreigners still in place for weeks or months to come, the boats aren’t actually docked here and the transfers are happening at sea.
Meanwhile, those trying to make early travel plans between Svalbard and the mainland are running into hardships because there are few or no available seats on flights, due in part to airlines reducing capacity for social distancing reasons.
“How will it be possible to create operations, business and income for Longyearbyen when there is not a single ticket to be found in the middle of Norway’s holiday season?” wrote Doreen Lampe, head guide and owner of Spitsbergen Adventures AS, in a Facebook post showing a schedule with only a few high-priced vacancies in June that initiated a discussion on the issue this week. “Or that tickets cost on average about 4,000 kroner?”
Some residents said they are having more success getting flights between Svalbard and Tromsø compared to those trying to get to/from Oslo, due largely to many tourists disembarking from Oslo flights in Tromsø. Some noted prices are also fluctuating wildly when seats are available, although the general agreement it will be a long time, if ever, before the “bargain” fares many are accustomed to will be seen again.
A passenger on the first “reopening” flight from the mainland on Monday said about 30 people aboard, compared to an average of ten while the travel ban was in full force, and a handful more more were reported during the next couple of days.
Birgitte Tautra Vegsund, sales manager at Basecamp Explorer Spitsbergen, told Svalbardposten the high fares and lack of seats are discouraging the relatively few tourists who are interested in visiting this summer.
“We are not in any way criticizing the airlines, rather extending a hand to the authorities that they must now get on the field and help the airlines further,” she said.
Another complication is the reduced level of tourism activities means many of the 90 percent of employees in the industry who were laid off during the past couple of months are facing long-term unemployment. For the 35 percent of Svalbard residents who are foreign citizens, many of them ineligible for unemployment or insurance benefits, that may mean the only alternative is returning to their home countries.
The Norwegian government, in an announcement met with considerable local hostility, announced in late May it would provide crisis funding for foreigners to travel to their home countries rather to extend short-term help offered to “exempt” residents. Bjørn Johansen, regional chair of the LO Troms and Finnmark labor union, told High North News he fears there will be a multitude of consequences for tourism in Svalbard if foreigners are sent away.
“What we have in mind is the competence many of the foreign workers posess, for instance professional cleaners,” he said. “Many of them are trained in infection control. This is a key group to keep in the re-opening of tourism in Svalbard, which is what keeps Svalbard running. If they are not there, it will be harder for the tourist industry to keep the wheels running. Hotels will come to a halt if they are not cleaned.”
“We fear the consequences of this. What we also fear, is that the big tourist industry actors representing the serious part of the tourist industry up there will go bankrupt and be taken over by others. Then we will lose overview over who and what work force we have in Svalbard.”