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|Slower, more strenuous tourism season forecast
Guides seeing changes in guest expectations as well as economics
The North Pole is melting and Svalbard ranks as a top-10 travel destination this year, but there's still going to be a rare decline in tourists this year and operators are working harder to please them.
Visitors to Svalbard, which increased from 12,482 in 1995 to 41,152 in 2008, are expected to drop for the first time in four years due to the global economic recession, according to government and tourism agency officials. But the mere drop in numbers doesn't tell the whole story, said Tove Eliassen, tourism manager for Svalbard Reiseliv.
"There will be a reduction, but 2008 was an exceptional year," she said. "There was an 8 percent jump then from 2007, which was a big leap compared to the jump the years before."
Some businesses are seeing a drop in income and a likelihood of hiring fewer employees during the next year or two. Svalbard does have some things in its favor, however, including a Norwegian economy not expected to be as affected by the recession as other countries. There's also a strong longer-term forecast for visitor growth in the world's polar regions, to the extent that 28 countries agreed this month to enact tough new restrictions on the number and size of tours to Antarctica.
"It will be a tough year," Eliassen said. "It won't be as hard for us as other destinations."
Lonely Planet lists Svalbard as one of its top 10 places to visit in 2009, stating "craggy peaks, dark fjords, glaciers and purest white snow...the ‘Cold Coast’ is Norway enhanced: colder, purer, more sparsely populated, more expensive – and a cool 1,000km nearer to the North Pole. It’s the only place in Europe where polar bears roam.”
That recommendation may be good for Svalbard tour operators, but they are also having to adjust to new visitor mentalities. Individual travelers are increasingly coming compared to groups and they are favoring spontaneous bookings for what Eliassen calls "expedition lite" trips.
"Twelve years ago when I came here people had booked their hotels and activities a year in advance," she said. "Now they do it in two days. What that does is make logistics and guiding difficult."
The interest in shorter excursions appears to be coming from a younger generation of travelers who believe "it's OK to buy your help," Eliassen said.
"It seems they want to rough it, but they don't really want to rough it," she said. "They can stand a night in a tent, but 'don't give me a week.'"
At the same, they're not opting out of more strenuous and environmentally friendly activities such as dog sledding and skiing. Stein Tore Pedersen, tourism advisor for the Svalbard's governor's office, stated in an e-mail interview that the general trend is "an increase in all segments" – 2009 cancellations aside – but "the good news is that the non-motorized options are increasing more than the motorized options."
Stig Halvorsen, manager of Sportscenteret Svalbard, said the independent mindedness means travelers are also spending less money to explore.
"They're are not taking the tours," he said. "They are going more on their own."
There hasn't been much change in sales at his store this year, Halvorsen said, since outdoor gear remains a necessity regardless of how people are getting out.
Eliassen and Pedersen said they do not have specific predictions for visitor numbers in 2009. But Eliassen said it's possible the dropoff may be largest during peak months when residents of other countries – 35 percent of Svalbard's total visitors – are a larger ratio of tourists.
"What happens this summer is going to be very interesting because it is an international market," she said. "Europeans may be feeling more pessimistic than Norwegians."
"Some days we have fewer trips, but many days we have the same trips with fewer individuals," he said.
Lockert said he hired nearly 20 employees, the same as last year, but that may drop to 15 next year if the current situation continues.
Not all businesses are seeing a decline, but changes in visitor types means there are still concerns.
"It's about the same as last year," Signe Mørk, manager of Skinnboden Arctic Products, said of her store's sales. "March was even better than last year."
April tends to be the store's best month, when Russians and other visitors buy higher ticket animal skin items, Mørk said. Visitors arrive in larger numbers on cruise ships later in the season, but they tend to buy less expensive souvenirs like stuffed animals. Also, theft is an increasing problem during peak season.
"We have to keep all the employees here for security," she said.
More than 200 people in Longyearbyen are employed in tourism, which generated 317 million NOK in sales in 2007, according to a policy overview of Svalbard released Friday by the Norwegian government. The report states growth of employment and tourists has come in waves.
"Particularly strong was growth in the period 1999-2001, before it remained steady in the period 2001-2005," the report states (according to a computer translation, with editing for clarity by Icepeople). "The last few years have again seen an increase in the number of guest days. In 2008 the percentage of rooms occupied in Longyearbyen was the highest level ever at 59. This is above the national average for all hotels, which in 2007 was 57 percent."
The vast majority of visitors come between March and August, presenting both problems and opportunities, officials said. Longyearbyen's two "hotel-class" lodges are usually full, a problem for groups reluctant to stay at guesthouses where amenities such as private bathrooms and meeting areas are uncertain. But while hotels in many parts of the world are discounting rates to cope with vacancies, Longyearbyen's lodging establishments usually shut some or all of their facilities, usually during the dark season.
It can be nearly impossible for employees to find housing during high season and frequently struggle to find work during the dark season.
"The next step is to broaden our season," Eliassen said.
A number of businesses and organizations are collaborating to promote winter attractions such as the Northern Lights, ice caving – largely the same in summer or winter – and events such as the decade-old Polarjazz festival. Pedersen stated the governor's office "has predicted a slight increase in the number of tourists visiting Svalbard many years now...due to the local effort of prolonging the seasons and introducing the 'polar night' as an option to tourists who want to see the complete darkness in November to February."
Several news events are making Svalbard and other Arctic locations a high-profile destination. They include the 100-year anniversary of the conquest of the North Pole and research indicating the summer ice at the Pole may vanish within 30 years. But Eliassen said such tourists aren't necessarily ideal.
"Going to the Pole is the goal," she said. "Being stuck in Longyearbyen is a negative thing. I want people who are excited to be here."
The same problem can affect some going on excursions, since "some people are not happy if they don't see a polar bear," she said.
One problem that may be affecting the number of short-term visitors is a reduction in flights due to Norwegian Air Shuttle's decision to pull out of Longyearbyen after flying here in 2008. That left just Scandinavian Airlines providing passenger service from the mainland, and the result from the lack of competition and seats is predictable. Eliassen said she could book a round-trip ticket from Longyearbyen to Oslo for 3,000-4,000 NOK in 2008, but this year just getting to Tromsø and back may cost 6,000 NOK – and space is frequently unavailable.
"What we're seeing is getting to Svalbard in 2009 is going to be much more expensive than 2008," she said. "That's not good at all."
But Eliassen said she remains optimistic about the overall trend for Svalbard tourism and most businesses are secure enough to survive an off year – or two.
"By 2011 we'll be back to normal," she said. "It may not even be that long."
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