Cruise tourism

A medium sized cruise ship near land in Svalbard.
Photo: Stein Ø. Nilsen / Norwegian Polar Institute

Cruise tourism in Svalbard has increased considerably in the last 10–15 years. It may have negative effects on the environment and cultural heritage, but, at the same time, cruise passengers get immense thrills from the scenery and wildlife, and increase their knowledge of Svalbard.

What is being monitored?

The number of people going ashore and landing sites outside the settlements and Isfjorden

Loading chart ...

The numbers indicate the scale of the activity. The number of people going ashore each year was quite stable from 1996 until 2000. The following season, number of tourists going ashore rose by about 72%. Following a period of steady rise, 2010 and 2011 saw a marked reduction in the number of people going ashore. The main reason was that private individuals had less money to spend. From 2011, the number of passengers has increased again. This increase is mainly due to overseas cruise ships. The largest increase came in 2015, an increase of about 40% compared to the year before. The expedition cruise ships have had a steady increase over the years, and contributed most to the increase in 2015.

Loading chart ...

The numbers indicate whether the traffic is steadily spreading to new areas. The number of landing sites rose steadily from 120 in 2001 to 165 in 2005. It then dropped, and from 2006 to 2009 it varied around 140. After 2009, the number of sites has increased rapidly, but has leveled out the two last years. In 2015, 179 sites were visited.

Status and trend

Tourism is one of three focus areas for business in Svalbard and has been so since White Paper no. 50 (1990–91) Næringstiltak på Svalbard (business efforts in Svalbard) was issued. Cruise tourism is the major part with a large number of operators and vessels. There are two main types – ocean-going cruise ships and expedition cruise ships. In addition, several small vessels offer day trips in Isfjorden.

Cruise ships transport a large number of passengers in Svalbard waters. Cruises started as early as 1891. When the Association of Arctic Expedition Tour Operators (AECO) was established in 2003, the industry took a major step in the right direction by drawing up guidelines for  AECO members and meeting the requirements of the authorities.

Despite the industry's long history in Svalbard, statistics only go back to 1996. Prior to that, there was little cruise traffic and few operators. Most vessels sailed along the west coast or around Spitsbergen. The number of places where passengers were put ashore rose steadily from 1996 to 2000. More small expedition cruise vessels appeared on the scene and they began visiting new areas and landing at new places, including eastern Svalbard. However, the number of people put ashore remained reasonably stable.

Statistics up to 2000 are deficient, but from 2001 onwards, all the operators have reported their activities. The number of tourists going ashore rose by about 45% from 2001 to 2008, with a peak in 2009. Most likely because of a decrease in private economy, the numbers dropped in 2010 and 2011, but they rose by  approximately 9000 passengers from 2011 to 2012. Even so, the parameter is on the same level as in 2005. The increase was significant in 2015. The expedition cruise vessels have had a sall, but steady increase up to 2008, and contributed the most to the increase in 2015.

The number of landing sites rose steadily from 120 in 2001 to a peak of 165 in 2005. New places were tested, but not all proved suitable. A decline towards a stabilization at 140 places  followed in the period 2006–2009. Since then, the number of landing sites has increased, and 179 sites were used in 2015. This is partly explained by a new type of product "Sail & Ski" where off-piste skiing is the main activity. These ships put people ashore at quite different sites than normal.

Overseas cruise ships normally only put passengers ashore at one or two places in Svalbard (Magdalenefjorden and sometimes Møllerhamna), apart from the settlements. The ban on heavy crude oil, limits on the number of passengers and restricted access to cultural heritage sites have changed the sailing routes of the large ships and protected vulnerable areas in eastern Svalbard.

Causal factors

Determined, long-term marketing of the cruises, growing interest for the Arctic with its virgin wilderness, magnificent scenery, exotic animal life and exciting cultural heritage relics, improved flight schedules, more tour operators and vessels, and more overnight accommodation in Longyearbyen have all contributed to the increase.

The number of overseas cruise ships visiting Svalbard has varied between 21 and 34, but rose in 2012. The number of over seas ships had a steep decrease from 23 in 2014 to 14 in 2015. The number of expedition cruise vessels has varied between 15 and 35, with a trend towards more but smaller vessels. In 2013, there was a decrease in the number of ships, but the number of passengers still increased. After an increase in 2014, the same happened in 2015 as the number of ships decreased by 5.

Until 2007, the authorities placed no particular limitations on the development of this business, but the landing restrictions and increasing self-applied control through AECO will affect the future development. In 2007 a heavy oil ban and passanger limitations were introduced in Svalbard. A decline after the financial crisis in Europe in 2008–2009 has been reversed and there is now some degree of optimism.

The introduction of a general ban on heavy crude oil in 2015, nevertheless, gives some cause for concern regarding future visits from overseas cruise ships.

Consequences

Putting ashore large numbers of passengers requires

  • good organisation
  • capable expedition leaders and guides
  • good practices
  • environmentally conscious passengers

If properly carried out, cruise tourism is environmentally friendly.

Cruises have a potential to make passengers more interested in the environment and the changing climate, but may in some cases contribute to

  • increased disturbing of vulnerable fauna
  • spreading of alien species of plants
  • damage and destruction of cultural heritage relics
  • pollution (especially if a ship runs aground or is wrecked)

It should be noted that several expedition cruise vessels join the annual Clean-up Svalbard action, helping to remove rubbish that has drifted ashore.

About the monitoring

It is important to monitor the development of the cruise tourism, to detect potential threats or damage to the natural or cultural heritage in Svalbard. Hence, MOSJ has selected two time series to present this:

  1. The total number of people going ashore indicates the scale of the activity.
  2. The number of places where people go ashore from cruise ships indicates whether the traffic is steadily spreading to new areas.

An increase in the number of people going ashore or in the number of places where people go ashore will show the management authorities whether there is a need for more detailed information or urgent action.

Places and areas

The whole of Svalbard beyond the settlements and Isfjorden.

Relations to other monitoring

Monitoring programme
International environmental agreements
Voluntary international cooperation
Related monitoring