A 30 percent hike in Longyearbyen’s port fees is causing exactly the wave of controversy one might expect: City officials say it’s necessary to pay for costs (especially after reducing many municipal fees last year to help locals suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic), while boat owners say the sudden hike a horrible burden due to the ongoing virus-caused economic crisis and a series of port fee hikes the past several years.
The fee hike approved by the Longyearbyen Community Council is necessary because the city incurred a huge budget deficit last year due to the enormous hit the pandemic had on the local economy, Mayor Arild Olsen told Svalbardposten.
The city has received tens of millions of kroner in emergency Covid funds from Norway’s government, which were used in part to offset the lower various user fees, but the need for higher revenue this year remains.
“Without capital from outside we could not have facilitated the smaller boats,” he said. “Their presence is too small in Longyearbyen. The strategy has worked because we have financed it, which in turn has provided opportunities that have created activity.”
Olsen told the newspaper he understands some may feel the new rate may seem too high, but “we still have to deal with the expenses as they are. The harbor is in the same situation as the rest of the business community in Longyearbyen, and is seasonal. Then we must have enough earnings during the (busy) season.”
But some paying those fees said their situations remain dire since most tourism activity still on hold due to Covid restrictions for a second straight year. Also, Trond Wassbakk, general manager of the day-cruise company Polar Charter, told Svalbardposten the local council has increased port fees by a total of 61 percent since 2016 and other fees such as water have seen similar hikes – while his company’s ticket prices have risen just 12.5 percent.
“There are unbelievably few bookings and no one who books in advance,” he said. “Last year many had booked a trip before the pandemic hit, and when summer came and people could travel they chose to keep their booking. But this year there are probably many who have not been lucky. You have to have a test, there is a lot of uncertainty and the airlines have not done things better.”
Adding to the controversy was a comment by Harbormaster Kjetil Bråten who, in addition to noting the city’s port costs have significantly increased during the past 15 years, told Svalbardposten “it is a pronounced wish from local authorities that the development and operation of the harbor will be paid for by users and act as an instrument to mitigate the growth of traffic in the city.”
That upset Eivind Trondsen, a local air transport employe, who in a Facebook post suggested it implies “it should be so expensive in the harbor that someone who thought about sailing to Svalbard drops it since the harbor fees are so high.”
Other defended Bråten, arguing that as with road fees and tolls, it’s the people using that infrastructure that should pay to cover the costs.
Sounds like the logic behind the fees on the mainland,” wrote Stefan Kuschti, a Tromsø resident. “Roads, public transit lines, bike paths, etc. must be paid with fees.”