Sustainable cruise in polar bear country

Longyearbyen, Svalbard Photo: Jarle Røsland / Visit Svalbard
Longyearbyen, Svalbard Photo: Jarle Røsland / Visit Svalbard
A major development in sustainability will be the introduction of solar energy in the port
A major development in sustainability will be the introduction of solar energy in the port
The design features a 120m by 35m structure with a height of 9m, featuring three levels
The design features a 120m by 35m structure with a height of 9m, featuring three levels
Michele Witthaus
Michele Witthaus

Michele Witthaus talks to organisations active in increasing sustainability in cruise tourism in the Arctic port of Longyearbyen.

Set at 780 within the Arctic Circle on the Svalbard archipelago, the small port of Longyearbyen has the distinction of being the northernmost town in the world.

As well as being located within one of the most vulnerable habitats in the world, Svalbard is also one of the fastest growing cruise attractions in Norway and is currently the country’s 15th largest cruise destination.

The location of the port of Longyearbyen makes it the main logistical point for both cruise and cargo ships and it is a short drive from the city centre and the airport, which offers regular flights to Tromsø and Oslo.

Green development

In 2015, the port announced ambitious plans for a new twin-dock floating terminal to serve a mix of ever larger cruise ships and small expedition vessels as well as research and fishing ships. The terminal is included in the national transportation plan for 2018 – 2024 and funding is expected to be available from next year to start development.

The design by leading Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta was chosen from ten possible and features a 120m by 35m structure with a height of 9m, featuring three levels, one of them under the waterline for storage and marine research purposes, accessible to ROVs and divers. Its specifications are robust enough to withstand solid and moving ice. Engineering firm Dr. Techn. Olav Olsen is a main contractor for the project, with specialist subcontractors still to be announced. The company is known for its concrete oil rigs in the North Sea and floating constructions in both cold and warm waters.

At the heart of the new developments is the need to comply with green port requirements, said harbour master Kjetil Bråten. “The green port working method fits nicely into the strict Svalbard environmental law. To fulfill this we include top Norwegian consultant companies in every aspect of a planning and building process.”

According to Mr Bråten, a major development in sustainability will be the introduction of solar energy in the port. “To harvest the energy from the sun that shines 24/7 for nearly six months and in the daytime for another three to four months, the port plans next year to install a solar panel park on top of an existing building and to extend this both in the future floating terminal, but also in the planned new 2,000m2 port building.”

The energy from the panels will be used to power electric mooring boats and cars, and to supply smaller vessels moored at the docks. The new terminal design will also reduce energy consumption by taking advantage of the higher temperature in the water than in the air during the winter months.

Sustainable tourism

Maintaining a sustainable tour experience in this unique environment is a challenge but Svalbard is ready, said Eva-Britt Kornfeldt, manager, Svalbard Cruise Network, which cooperates on cruise tourism management with the harbour, local stakeholders and the tourist board.

“A key element of the master plan for tourism in Svalbard to 2025, which was published last year, is to establish Svalbard’s identity as a sustainable destination in keeping with Innovation Norway’s sustainability policies,” she explained. “Longyearbyen gained the status of a sustainable tourist destination in 2016 and we work on 41 criteria which we have to fulfil to get and keep the status.”

A recent NCA report commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Transport and Public Security forecasts a sharp increase in shipping related to tourism, research and education activities in Svalbard in the future, with estimates of growth from a total of 961 vessels carrying 61,900 people visiting Longyearbyen in 2016, to 2,317 vessels (176,300 people) by 2060.

Cruise calls are still in the early part of that trajectory. The 2017 cruise season, which runs from early June to mid-August, saw approximately 40 overseas calls and 45,000 passengers (up from 2016’s 37 calls and 41,614 passengers). The larger segment of expedition cruising, which runs from April to September, saw more than 230 calls last year (12,000 passengers).

The average size of cruise vessels is on an upward trend and in August this year, MSC Cruises’ Preziosa became the biggest ship ever to call at Longyearbyen, carrying 4,138 guests on the last of three summer calls. In addition there were five calls from AIDA Cruises’ AIDAluna and several from various TUI Cruises’ Mein Schiff vessels with just over 2,000 passengers each, plus six calls by smaller Phoenix Reisen vessels.

Following Preziosa’s maiden call, Mr Bråten told the Barents Observer that over the last decade, cruise tourism to the islands had increased by up to 20% per year, adding: “Up to 90% of the ships visiting our port are cruise ships and we know how to handle the increasing traffic. We have a smooth system.”

Ronny Brunvoll, general manager at Visit Svalbard, stated in an article in the Svalbardposten in August: “The cruise segment is growing fast and many new ships will be on the market in the next few years. These are ships that are both larger than today's ships, but also built with more environmentally friendly technology."

“We still want cruise tourism to Svalbard, but we must ensure that development takes place with local control, focusing on good experiences, minimised footprints and local value creation. The size of ships Longyearbyen is designed to meet, therefore, becomes the central question in this way, and must be discussed thoroughly…At the same time, we know that extended stay time at the dock means that we can handle larger amounts of guests with the desired quality.”

Ms Kornfeldt agrees that sustainability depends on managing the flow of cruise guests in the port and beyond. “We try to make sure the ships stay as long as possible, from early morning to late evening, and we have had two overnight calls this season,” she said. “The tour operators have a diverse menu of shore excursions, ranging from night kayaking during the midnight sun or dogsledding on wheels to visits to the ice fjord and more.”

Fragile ecosystem

Tourist volumes are managed via a policy of not allowing independent sales of shorex products on the quayside. At the same time, there is a need to alert independent tourists to the need for armed guides outside of the town limits due to the region being a polar bear habitat. Fragile ecosystems, calving glaciers and increasing landslide/avalanche risk also mean that visitors are not encouraged to wander off alone.

Since 1916, mining for bituminous coal has been a major industry in Svalbard but the Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani’s two mines close to the port of Longyearbyen have seen greatly diminished activity in recent years.

“The mining industry is being reduced and maybe there won’t be any mining at all in future,” said Ms Kornfeldt. “Tourism, research and new industries is what we’re going to live off in the coming years in Svalbard.”

The importance of future infrastructure development cannot be overemphasised, said Mr Brunvoll: “If we are to succeed in our sustainability ambition, we are totally dependent on local development. Facilities include the establishment of airport and quay accesses, paths and routes - as well as information, signage, waste management and better preparation of guests visiting Svalbard.”

He added that Visit Svalbard had signed the call for a total ban on heavy oil in the Arctic (current regulations still allow for its use in the region). “If the initiative is supported by mainland Norway, this will be a powerful signal to cruise operators that the pace of conversion to other fuels needs to be significantly improved,” he said.

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