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|Getting the short end of tourism
30 percent drop worse than many destinations and recoveries seen elsewhere may be farther away
The good news: Many places with more tourists this year are recovering from wars and terrorism. And lots of areas having a bad year are going through similar turmoil or other disasters such as the swine flu epidemic.
The bad news: Svalbard's 30 percent drop in visitors during the first six months of 2009 is among the highest of locations surveyed worldwide, far outpacing the global decline of 8 percent. Also, the recovery many other places expect during the rest of the year is unlikely to happen in Svalbard as the polar night sets in.
Still, numbers don't always tell the full story. Svalbard's decline is partially a return to a normal curve after landmark events caused a sharp upward spike in 2008. Also, total "guest days" are down a somewhat less severe 20 percent.
Some tour operators say they haven't seen a drop in business. On days when cruise ships carrying more than 4,000 people arrive, packing streets and shops with shoulder-to-shoulder humanity, it's easy to find plenty putting aside concerns about the global recession.
"You don't worry about expenses. Live for today," said Debbie Marson, a Perth, Australia, resident celebrating her 50th birthday by taking a 10-day Spitsbergen cruise.
Her husband, Howard, said his commercial building business has been hit hard, down to one project at point instead of the normal six to eight, and Norway's currency exchange rate is "not as good as I thought it was." But he agreed "life's about the journey" and, if anything, he'd splurge on upgraded ship cabins if he had a do-over.
A total of 16,585 visitors arrived between Jan. 1 and June 30 this year, compared to 21,708 in 2008, according to statistics published by Svalbardposten. Total days spent in Svalbard by visitors were 43,511, down from 52,007, and lodging occupancy was 45.53 percent, down from 51.7 percent.
"The economy is tighter in Europe than in Norway. I think it may be a reduction for the summer," said Tove Eliassen, who recently departed as the manager of Svalbard Tourism, in an interview with the newspaper. During the coming months "it will be even harder to keep the wheels in motion. It is difficult to fill beds in the fourth quarter."
Total visitors rose 8 percent in 2008 compared to 2007, the fourth straight year of increases, as event such as the International Polar Year and the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault focused attention on the area. But tour operators and government officials said they started seeing a decline toward the end of 2008 as the recession set in. Conferences and large tour groups in particular are down, and some officials say a recovery may not start until mid- to late-2010.
Another factor that may slow a recovery is the Norwegian kroner is expected to fare better against the euro during the next year than 48 other currencies tracked by global investment banks, making Norway more expensive for foreigners. The kroner has been the third-worst performer against the euro since mid-2008, resulting in widespread travel articles earlier this year touting what's normally one of the world's most expensive countries as a relative bargain.
The World Tourism Organization reports international tourism in Europe is down about 10 percent for the first half of this year, but there are signs of a turnaround during the second half. Wide-ranging factors beyond the economy means figures for individual destinations on the continent and elsewhere are equally diverse.
Among Arctic destinations, cruise ship voyages to Nunavut in Canada are down 25 percent from a year ago, about equal to the tourism decline elsewhere in the country, although one northern lodge operator said his business is down 60 percent. An exception is the 1,942-person town of Vulcan, Alta, which already reports a record number of tourists for the entire year thanks a high-profile campaign capitalizing on the release of the movie "Star Trek," complete with a plug by Leonard Nimoy .
Operators in Alaska are reporting drops of 15 percent to 50 percent and cruise ship companies are slashing many fares by nearly half to attract passengers.
Among the first-half reports from other destinations:
• Thailand reports a 16 percent decrease, with room occupancy rates at 44 percent compared to 66 percent last year, as flu concerns and political protests that closed Bangkok's airport earlier this year are adding to economic woes.
• Hawaii received 8.7 percent fewer visitors and 15.1 percent less revenue, in part due to flu concerns and a 33 percent drop in Japanese tourists.
• Israel reports a 20 percent decline, but the total is 15 percent higher than 2007, with political stability playing a key role in visitor numbers.
• Mediterranean destinations such as Greece, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus have fallen an average of 10 percent.
• Favorable exchange rates have limited Turkey to a 1.5 percent drop as the Turkish lira has fallen 12 percent against the euro and 4 percent against the British pound. Revenue is down even further, as hotels and other businesses drastically reduce rates.
• Britain is also benefiting from a drop in the pound. While few living in the U.K. are traveling abroad, visitor numbers from France, Germany, Italy, Holland and the Nordic states were up for the first three months of 2009.
• Sweden is reporting a 7 percent increase during the month of June compared to a year ago, with in-country travelers increasing 5 percent and accounting for two-thirds of total travelers. Foreign visitors are up 11 percent.
• Political stability is proving a boon for some areas. Lebanon, touted as the "Paris of the Middle East" decades ago, reports a 30 percent increase in tourism this year following the election of a pro-Western parliament and infrastructure rebuilding after a long civil war. Tibet officials say a record 1.5 million visitors arrived, up from 342,000 in the wake of riots last year.
Svalbard continues to receive good publicity, including Lonely Planet listing the area as a top-10 destination for 2009 and National Geographic's feature about the "Ice Paradise" in April. Those kind of accolades are why, even when the budget is tight, there's still plenty of days when locals find themselves well outnumbered by those indulging in what they consider a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"We can say it was worth every kroner because you can do two or three trips to other countries and not experience as much as we did here," said Arne Elvestad, a Horten resident, after a cruise around Spitsbergen with a bird-watching group.
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