In what might called an instance of the “Progress Party” living up to its literal name, a proposal by local members for an additional 40 million kroner in emergency COVID-19 aid for Svalbard tourism companies affected by the pandemic was unanimously approved by Parliament’s Finance Committee on Friday and is scheduled to be considered by the full body on Tuesday.
“Hopefully this saves lots of businesses that have had a terrible year and have now had their second straight winter season destroyed,” Arnt Vegar Jensen, head of the Longyearbyen branch of the Progress Party, wrote in a Facebook message Friday evening.
Jensen said the proposal was made because local members felt stronger measures are needed to help local businesses and workers beyond a 25-million-kroner “transition” allocation approved late last year, which is now in the evaluation process for those who applied for funds.
Although the Progress Party – notorious for its populist positions – is part of the Conservative-led majority coalition at the national level, locally the party has only two of the 15 seats on the Longyearbyen Community Council. Jensen emphasized credit is due to other local party members and business leaders who lobbied Parliament members, as well as Visit Svalbard and Svalbardposten for raising the profile of the proposal among the public as well as politicians.
Beyond the cumulative and ongoing economic devastation of the pandemic itself, which has hit Svalbard harder economically than any other region in Norway, hopes for at least some kind of decent spring tourism season took a hard hit when the government imposed a mandatory negative COVID-19 test for all people travelling to the archipelago within 24 hours of departure. Also, the transition funding can only be used for new ventures, not to cover existing offerings or to help offset losses incurred.
Local tourism companies are reporting a 65 percent drop in revenue due to the pandemic, according to a statement submitted to the finance committee by Visit Svalbard.
If approved the funds would be administered by the Longyearbyen Community Council, much as the transition aid and other COVID-19 related help has generally been, according to Visit Svalbard Director Ronny Brunvoll.
“The funds are paid out by the local government, which we assume is ready to get the money quickly out where they are going – best for crisis-affected companies and their employees,” he wrote in an online announcement.