"Guests do not come here to experience Longyearbyen," said Daniel Skjeldam. "They want more. Feel free to ask for stringent requirements for snowmobiles, guides and such, let us be tough on that."
On Monday, the chairman of Spitsbergen Travel and director of parent company Hurtigruten embarked on the Fram expedition cruise ship. Its course is set for Moffen in the far north before the ship heads south to Antarctica via Bjørnøya and the Norwegian coast.
Challenging the boundaries
Before departing he discussed plans for Svalbard, which will become more important for the corportion in the coming years.
Skjeldam said he want tourists to experience more of Svalbard, also on land and in the winter, and is throwing himself into the snowmobile debate.
Among other things, he said there should be better access to areas outside Zone 10 and the enclosed area on the east coast.
Zone 10 defines the area where tourists can roam alone. For tourists in an organized tour, it is also allowed to drive to the east coast between Wichebukta in the north to Agardh in the south, a coastal stretch of about 50 kilometers.
It is these limits Skjeldam is challenging. The area is used extensively by travel industry and residents, but at times it can get quite crowded.
"The organized part of the tourist industry poses no threat," he said. "It is the unorganized part that causes it."
Dare not to build new
In November the doors will close at the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel for renovations and an expansion to 150 rooms, up from the current total of 80. Skjeldam noted Spitsbergen Travel did a similar facelift at what is now Coal Miner's Cabin; it now is characteristically Svalbard in interior design, decor and menu.
At the same time, Skjeldam is forecasting a greater emphasis on the international market and in summer of 2017 the new expedition cruise ship Spitsbergen will begin voyages to Svalbard. He emphasized that is an expedition cruise ship that allows Hurtigruten through Spitsbergen Travel to develop.
But a new hotel in Svalbard isn't something he's willing to pursue now.
"I dare not in any way allocate funds for a new hotel," Skjeldam said, adding the government must establish the premises for how future development will occur. "There is too much uncertainty ahead. It is not without risk investing here. The municipal council must work for a stable regulatory framework."
"If we shall invest we need long-term predictability – and I'm not talking about five years, but about 25," he said, echoing earlier comments by Spitsbergen Travel Director Knut Harald Holst-Hansen.
'Expensive and bad'
Spitsbergen Travel had a before-tax profit of 22.9 million kroner in 2014 on a total income of 184.7 million (see figures). The previous year salvaged the financial bottom line. This year's first half is, according to the chairman, one of the company's best and the forecast for the third quarter is good.
"At Hurtigruten we have done a grueling turnaround since the autumn of 2012 with cost reductions and efficiency improvements. It was expensive, but occasionally bad," Skjeldam said about the vessels.
The company's subsidiary is in a somewhat different situation.
"Spitsbergen Travel is delivering," he said, "Here there is the same combination as Hurtigruten in general, with lower costs and product improvements. Svalbard should not be a low-cost product, but a premium product."
Visit Svalbard is hoping tourism in Svalbard will double in the coming years. Skjeldam said he also expects a doubling in profit for Spitsbergen Travel.
The company is also running advertising campaigns for Svalbard packages including flights and lodging for about €400. That is too cheap, he said.
"But we must offer products that are ultimate world-class," he said. "Not the luxury segment, but we will not sell ourselves cheap."
The seed vault: 'reason to go'
The tourist industry in Svalbard has so far experienced a good year, partly because of the total solar eclipse in March. The challenge is still the polar night from November to February. Skjeldam said the industry needs to come up with interesting and exciting adventures that serve as a draw.
The Northern Lights are not enough in themselves, said the Hurtigruten chief, offering suggestions for "reasons to go."
One such reason is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which he has a strong desire to use to draw tourists.
"I want a visitor center in glass that tells about the seed vault, its content, technology and what it looks like down there, often with video cameras," Skjeldam said."It's a cool story, that. There we can take guests throughout the year. Build a thing around the seed vault."
He also mentioned the newly opened Mine 3 as a good story that needs to be further developed. He also wants closer cooperation between tourism and researchers in both Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund.
But being a major player in Svalbard also involves a caretaker responsibility. Does Skjeldam feel he is living up to it?
"We have become better at that role," he said. "I'm looking more forward than backward. But it also means that we will require quality. It is important that all the players succeed, those who deliver quality. There are plenty of bad products in Norway and that benefits nobody."
The answer is no
The tourism industry already has plenty of touring areas, according to the Green Party.
"We believe tourism have been provided an abundant supply of tour areas that exist today. The answer is therefore no," said Espen Klungseth Rotevatn, head of the local Green Party. "What we are lacking here is not expeditions. Those are low-threshold services, snowmobile tours to the glacier and 'Jernsenga'.
The Liberal Party is also not interested in allowing tour companies to bring snowmobiles to more areas than they can today. Eirik Berger, the party's top-ranked candidate in the upcoming Longyearbyen Community Council election, is concerned about sharpening the focus on the area defined in the master plan for the tourism industry, which was published this spring.
Arild Olsen, the top-ranked Labor Party candidate, said he believes it makes sense the majority of tourism takes place in the vicinity of Longyearbyen, but nevertheless is keeping the door open for tourism offerings outside the defined areas.
"It is natural that such traffic is discussed with the Polar Affairs Department and local participants," he wrote in an e-mail.
The Conservative Party has stated the party will facilitate tourism opportunities. Top-listed candidate Torgeir Prytz said he nonetheless isn't locking himself in.
"In this case we need to discuss it with the business association," he said. "Many visitors think it's a far trip to Barentsburg, so it will probably be a bit limited in the number participating in the trips outside Area 10."
Translated by Mark Sabbatini