The tourism industry is applying for 23.6 million kroner to support the development of Isfjorden as a tourist destination. At the beginning of the year the industry was affected by the full enactment of a ban on heavy oil, meaning overseas cruise ships using such fuel – the majority of them, in other words – can no longer visit Ny-Alesund and Magdalenefjorden. Those were prime destinations in the cruise industry's eyes and the number of overseas cruises to Svalbard is therefore down this year. The prohibition does not apply in Isfjorden, so the project is attempting to making that area an attractive target for cruise ships.
"Isfjorden as the most important area for nature-based tourism in Svalbard" is the title of the project backed by Visit Svalbard, Spitsbergen Travel, Bioforsk and the Longyearbyen Community Council.
300 more FTEs
"It's not that everything stands or falls on this support," said Visit Svalbard Director Ronny Brunvoll.
"But our getting the grant means a kick-start on major projects, which we regard as important."
In addition, the developing crisis at Store Norske, where about 100 employees have been dismissed this year, means future coal mining is uncertain. That in turn may have consequences for air travel and the community. Tourism is expected to compensate for some of the lost jobs and the project will provide new jobs within nature-based tourism.
The main project consists of 30 sub-projects and has a price tag of 47.3 million kroner. Half of the money, 23.6 million, is being sought from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In the application to the ministry, Visit Svalbard details major changes expected in the community and how the travel industry can help compensate for the loss of jobs linked to the coal industry.
The destination company also notes that leading up to 2025 the aim is to increase employment in tourism from the current total of about 300 full-time equivalents to 600. Of that, Spitsbergen Travel alone accounts for 80.
"In this way we can help to maintain a robust family community in Longyearbyen in the short- and long-term," the application states.
'The money is sitting looser'
But achieving that goal means increasing the number of guests coupled with longer stays.
The employment rate contains much that needs to be seen in context, Brunvoll said. Svalbardposten wrote last week the winter season of 2015 will probably be the best tourism industry has experienced. Figures from last year show that 2014 also set a record, but that has not resulted in the growth in employment one might expect.
"Now we see that growth has come in the past two years, but it has not turned out as lucky in employment. The growth has more been taken by travelers using the spare capacity," said Brunvoll, who nevertheless asserts there must be more beds, activities and places to eat, and the prerequisites for tourism growth in Svalbard include the local and central governments being "team players."
According to Visit Svalbard, profitability in the tourism industry is improving and the desire to invest is greater.
"How quickly that can come we do not know, but the first hotel – part two of Svalbard Hotel – will be finished in 2016," he said.
When the crisis at Store Norske became known, The University Centre in Svalbard sought the government's support to hasten the implementation of expansion plans to double the university's activities in Longyearbyen.
The tourism industry is also talking about doubling its presence.
The National Park Centre has taken the initiative in the application for project funding. Bjorn Frantzen, the project's leader, who set foot on Spitsbergen for the first time in 1977 and is engaged in nature conservation, said he is eager to link tourism and conservation together.
"If you do not let people get the opportunity to experience nature in a good way, it is also not easy to get them willing to take care of it," he said.
The Bioforsk research institute has expertise in the areas of agriculture, food production, plant health, environment and resource management.
Frantzen also notes the desire for nature-based tourism and attuned tourism is growing.
"People who come to Svalbard come to experience nature. It's a very, very small part that does not make it that, but there are not a lot of resources used to sharpen that facilitation," said the researcher, adding he believes scientists and tourism can live well together and benefit greatly from each other.
Can Svalbard withstand more tourists?
"It is rather a question of how to accommodate for more," Frantzen said. "Again is it about knowledge of and management. If you are witless you can destroy a lot, but if you have knowledge it can facilitate many."
Store Norske is expected to receive a 500-million-kroner bailout from the Norwegian government consisting of loans and the purchase of the company's properties. Minister of Trade, Industry and Fisheries Monica Mæland, in her recommendation Parliament approve the bailout, also noted there is a danger of liquidating coal mining if the situation does not improve by the end of 2016. She also noted a revised "white paper" defining policy goals for Svalbard is expected to be completed this year.
The aim of the project sought by the tourism companies, the research institute and local government is to begin this autumn and complete implementation by December of 2018.
The list of measures is long and many of them focus specifically on facilitating tourists and hikers, including fossil walks in association with the Natural History Museum and sherpa paths up to the viewpoints of Sukkertoppen and Varden on each side of Longyeardalen.
"We shall have a growing need to channel much of the surrounding area to Longyearbyen," Brunvoll said. "Then we have to raise our vision in order to touch anything. In my head, it must now be to the benefit of both nature and man in making the arrangements for nature and nature trails. Then the wear becomes not so great."
Translated by Mark Sabbatini