Arctic: how do you welcome tourists and protect the environment?

How can you enjoy an impeccable nature without harming it? High in the Arctic, a Norwegian archipelago is trying to play the card of sustainable tourism, an avenue as attractive as it is complex to implement.

1,300 kilometers from the North Pole, Spitsbergen (or Spitsbergen), is an arctic adventure within the reach of a simple scheduled flight: breathtaking wild immensity, polar bears, midnight sun or northern lights, depending on the seasons… But in a region that is warming three times faster than the planet, it is also, like the canary in the mine, a worrying showcase of climate change.

Over the years, the coal seams, the historical raison d’être of human presence in these latitudes, have almost all closed and tourism, along with scientific research, has become one of the main pillars and employers of the local economy.

“It is always difficult to defend because we know that tourism poses challenges in all the places people visit, but also from a climatic point of view. But we can’t prevent people from traveling, visiting each other, so we have to find solutions.”

Ronny Brunvoll, director of Visit Svalbard, the association of tourism professionals.

In the archipelago where 65% of the spaces are protected, the approximately 140,000 annual visitors (pre-Covid-19 figures), like the 3,000 inhabitants, must adhere to strict rules: prohibition of disturbing the fauna (for example, detecting of a polar bear is punishable by a heavy fine) or picking flowers in these countries where vegetation is scarce…

“We are really facing nature, we don’t have that much anymore”testifies Frédérique Barraja, a French photographer who was met at the airport. “It attracts like any rare place. After that, they remain vulnerable, so you have to visit them in a respectful way.”

Ultra-polluting heavy fuel oil, widely used by large cruise ships, has been banned in archipelago waters since the beginning of the year, even before the progressive ban goes into effect across the Arctic from 2024.

Undoubtedly another nail in the coffin for these belittled behemoths of the seas, who sometimes disembark up to 5,000 passengers in Longyearbyen, the archipelago’s modest capital whose infrastructure, from roads to toilets, is ill-suited to such crowds.

Electric is fantastic

In a tourism sector targeting a fairly exclusive clientele, some players anticipate or go beyond regulation, such as Hurtigruten, which has set itself the ambition to “the most ecological tour operator in the world”. Sustainability “shouldn’t be a competitive advantage”says a senior manager of the group, Henrik Lund. “It just has to be a ticket to operate”

After the tour operator banned single-use plastic in 2018, the tour operator now offers electric snowmobile rides and, more recently, sea excursions aboard a small innovative diesel-electric hybrid boat, the Kvitbjørn (i.e., polar bear in Norwegian).

“In idyllic exploration locations, you go all-electric, go quiet, and emit no combustion fumes.”

Johan Inden, president of the marine division of engine manufacturer Volvo Penta.

One small problem: On Spitsbergen, the electricity still comes from a coal-fired power station, a source of fossil energy that contributes to global warming. “Electrification makes sense regardless of the energy source”reassures Christian Eriksen, an official with the Norwegian environmental NGO Bellona.

Whether from “dirty” or “clean” sources, the electric one “always allows to reduce emissions,” he emphasizes, citing a study on electric cars that concludes in this direction. But “this reduction will be considerably greater if the coal-fired power station is replaced”

A day that can’t last long: Longyearbyen wants to close its polluting power plant by autumn 2023, switch the package to renewable energy and reduce its emissions by 80% by 2030.

But “we can do what we can locally, including snowmobile or car emissions, we have to recognize that the real big problem is transport to and from Spitsbergen, both for tourism and for us, the locals, who live here”says Mr Brunvoll.


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