Arctic Encounters sat down with Ronny Brunvoll, the director of Svalbard Reiseliv – and Longyearbyen’s biggest Liverpool FC fan – to discuss the where things these days are with tourism in the Arctic archipelago.
Arctic Encounters: Thank you for sitting down to chat for a bit Ronny. First off, could you talk a bit about what has been happening in recent years in terms of the numbers of tourists visiting Svalbard?
Ronny Brunvoll: There was a rise in total tourist numbers until 2008. That was the last peak – since then it’s been decline and stagnation until last year, then the numbers rose again. Lots of this is due to transport. Norwegian Airlines flew here until 2008, and then they suddenly withdrew for several years. Then they returned from 1 March last year. It’s all about logistics of course: we can promote as much as we want, but if there aren’t enough seats, then we’re stuck. But that [return] was a blessing for the tourism business up here. Now it seems that the rise has been so good and stable that we will manage to maintain two airline companies, which is vital for the expansion of [the tourism] business.
AE: Why did Norwegian stop flying here in 2008?
RB: I guess it wasn’t good enough numbers for them. They are very quick-in/quick-out. The minute they stop earning money somewhere, they pull out. And at that time their infrastructure was minimal enough that they could stop more or less at a moment’s notice. Now we know they did so well last year that the only adjustment they will make is that they will cut one flight one day a week for two months out of the winter period. And that is no disaster.
AE: So how much flight traffic is there into Svalbard nowadays?
RB: Norwegian flies three flights weekly year round, while SAS flies much more during the summer – they have night flights and the regular day flights – and during the winter they fly four or five times a week.
AE: And it looks like there are new hotels going up now in Longyearbyen – that seems positive.
RB: There are three plans that we know of. The Svalbard Hotel will have 30 additional rooms next year – they are building a new structure close to Kroa [a local restaurant in the centre of Longyearbyen]. That has been known for some time now. They have in fact already sold all the rooms for next year’s solar eclipse [March 2015], so they have to build them. Then two other plans for hotels came just before Christmas. One will be between 130-140 rooms. There is a local entrepreneur behind the application, but we don’t know who is really behind the hotel and who is going to run it – if it is locals or if it’s one of the big mainland chains, possibly Tone[Tune?]. The other one is a Hong Kong-based business woman, Po Lin Lee. Her plan is for a hotel between 80 and 120 rooms and she says that she has all the funding ready and that she is using her people in Hong Kong for the drawing and planning process. These things take time, of course. We are not sure if she is going to build this year or next year. But it’s exciting, and it shows that there is a big belief in Svalbard.
AE: How did she get involved in Svalbard?
Ronny: As she puts it, she just came up here and fell in love with the place. She’s already built a small shop and alongside it built that big red Santa Claus mailbox that you see when you come into town. She’s got a lot of ideas.
AE: The world’s largest postbox – what was the idea behind that? Other than to steal tourists away from Rovaniemi’s Santa Claus Village…
Ronny: Ah, God knows [laughs]. No, it was just an idea. She said that the Chinese, they want something else, something different. And that’s her angle on developing things. She wants to reach part of the Asian market – China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan. So that means an increase in 70-80% beds in Longyearbyen within a very short time. The current capacity is 370 commercial rooms (800 beds).
AE: So things are definitely expanding. But does that mean that there will be more activities for people to do while they’re in Svalbard?
RB: Yes, we need that. The rest of the infrastructure needs to follow. We need more restaurants, more things to do. We’re in the middle of a process now – a process that started way before these building plans got underway – to build a strategy for where the destination will be in 2025. We also have to take into consideration the location of Svalbard and the strong regulations that we are subject to. Our belief is that we have to focus on Longyearbyen and the places close to Longyearbyen and start developing a diversity of products that don’t require you to sit on a snowmobile for 10 hours. Shorter excursions where you’re still in the wilderness. For most people, being two or three hours out – that’s perfect. For many, 8 or 10 hours is heavy. I speak to a lot of people who come here during the dark season and they regularly tell me, “It was marvellous” but they’re exhausted. So we want to meet visitors’ expectations as well as meet the environmental standards that we are required to meet. I don’t have all the answers as to how – but we’re working on this now. We are calling it “Longyearbyen som opplevelses arena” – Longyearbyen as the place to discover things.
AE: The money for most local development comes from private entrepreneurs. Does this mean that you work with them to discuss what the vision for Svalbard can be. How do these meet?
RB: All the businesses are part of the local tourism board. The process is very inclusive, and we include everyone and try to focus together on which direction we are going to take as a destination and as a society. But of course it is all up to the creativity of individual people or individual businesses that they see a possibility to do something. Our main concern, as well as that of the Sysselmann (Governor of Svalbard) is that it is within the standards it has to be regarding security and the environment.
AE: What sorts of things are individuals coming up with?
RB: One example of a great crazy idea is Arctic Tapas – a group of persons came together to bring this Arctic Tapas idea into the market, and they met a lot of resistance from local society. Ridiculed a bit, people told them it was a stupid idea.
RB: Mostly, it’s just plain and simple Janteloven. I really couldn’t understand it – why ridicule them? It’s a new idea, it’s innovative, it’s something different. It’s not in competition with anyone else – why not cheer them forth? Let them see if it’s viable. And it seems like it is. It’s a really special experience. And now I see locals on Facebook – now they’re praising the thing. They do sightseeing around town, but with food. They’ll stop a little bit, they tell some stories, and they serve great bite-sized food – right on the bus. It’s a strange combination. But the food is excellent.
AE: How easy is it for entrepreneurs in the tourism industry to get something up and running here?
RB: If you’re trying to start a business, the best thing is that people come and talk to me to become a part of the common organisation of local businesses. I tell everyone – come to the meetings, be involved, talk to people, get situated here. But of course on Svalbard, like all small places, it’s about who you know. So you need to get in with people and sell each other’s products. Visitsvalbard.com is the single common site for all products here – this is a common booking system.
AE: There is a difference between planning your entire trip ahead of time and arriving to a destination first, then saying to yourself, “Ok, what can I do here?” Listening to tourists speak over the past week, it seems that a lot of them are people who have booked their trip to Svalbard, shown up and then looked around for various things to do here. 20 years ago this wasn’t really possible on a trip to Svalbard. Is that a big change in how people are consuming the destination?
RB: We have a theory that with Norwegian Airlines back on Svalbard, we have a different type of people coming up here. It used to be that the experienced travellers who came here, they had everything – accommodation and activities – organised and they were more structured. Now we’re getting reports that more people are just coming up, often without a place to stay – they often think, “Well, I’ll just find a place to stay once I’m up there”. We see more and more people who try to find things to do once they arrive. For most of them this works ok – although we know that in peak season, there are certain things that are going to be booked out. There are more and more things though here now – hikes or ATV trips or excursions with fat-tyre bikes. While a few years ago there was very little to do in the dark season.
AE: It may in fact be the constraints which Svalbard has that encourages creative thinking among entrepreneurs. What is the view of the Governor’s office on tourism?
RB: This is one of my main tasks – to explain the tourism is a good thing for Svalbard and for people that live here. What would Longyearbyen be without tourists? Shops, restaurants, cheap flights, things to go – this would have been a wasteland or a dark place. Like places down on the mainland with 2000 inhabitants where if you’re lucky there’ll be one pizza place and somewhere to have a few beers. And the rest you’d find in the neighbouring city 10 or so miles away. But up here there is no neighbouring city, so without tourists this would all be nothing – at least in my opinion. But I think it has to mature a bit as well.
AE: Is there any animosity towards tourists up here?
RB: No one here is unfriendly to tourists – locals mingle with tourists all the time, in restaurants, in bars. So I think it might be more just a thing to say [casually] – I’ve never heard complaining about anyone being hostile towards tourists. Maybe on the few days when the massive cruise ships come in and bring 3,500 people with them. But so what if one or two days there’s a bit of a traffic jam in town? Ok, there’s a bit of a queue at the shop. What’s the problem? It’s not a huge deal, really. But I do think that people understand that tourism is vital to this place.
AE: Has the Sysselmann changed their tune in recent years on what they want for tourism on Svalbard?
RB: There is a common notion in the business that there has been a bit of a struggle between those who want to protect the environment on the one hand and those who want to create business on the other. And we feel that we need long-term perspectives on all investments and everything we do up here. And we feel that regulations they can come very rapidly – more and more rapidly, according to those who have been here for a while. And there is also the sense that the regulations themselves are much more strongly followed now than they used to be. It creates more of a conflict, or at least a gnissning (friction) between business and the governor’s office. That is a challenge. And we’ve made it a real priority to address these issues in the master strategy plan we have for Svalbard. The rammebetingelse – what we are allowed to do and what we can allow for the next 20 years – things that musn’t change next week or next year. If you’re Statoil and you’re going to develop an oil field, you also need that perspective – a long way ahead. So that is what we point out to every politician and bureaucrat who comes around. We don’t need money or investments from the government – we just need to know what can we do and what can’t we do … for the next 20 years. Where can we go? What kind of equipment is allowed to be used.
AE: Have there been any regulations that have scuppered attempts to do new things in Svalbard?
RB: For example, take Norway’s heavy oil ban – that cruise liners which carry heavy oil cannot come within a certain vicinity of Norway’s National Parks. There has been an exception for many years up here for Ny Ålesund and Magdalenefjord. But now from 1 January of next year, these big ships will no longer be able to visit Ny Ålesund and Magdalenefjord, which are surrounded by national parks. And so two of the biggest destinations on Svalbard will be completely lost for the large cruise liners. And this has been put quite rapidly on Svalbard as the only place in the Arctic where there is a heavy oil ban. I see the logic in the heavy oil ban, I have no problems with it actually. But then they should have worked towards a pan-Arctic ban so that we don’t need to lose the business to other Arctic destinations. But we’ve turned it into something hopefully positive. The ban is coming, whether we like it or not, and we have to focus on thinking about what we can do. They are not allowed to go around the archipelago – all the other places are National Parks – but cruise ships are still allowed to visit Longyearbyen, they are allowed to visit Isfjorden. It’s those small things. This winter, for example, there was no ice on Tempelfjorden. So the scooter trips out to Pyramiden were cut because they couldn’t reach Pyramiden since you’re not allowed to take tourist groups outside of what is called Area 10. But with a slight compromise with the Governor’s office, groups could have made a slight detour on one of the big glaciers and then come straight down to Pyramiden. But the response was: No way. And it’s always met with all the rules and regulations. So smidighet doesn’t exist. There are lots of different examples of this. Of course we make use of the trade and commerce department in the government’s office to focus on our needs and we try to mobilise them to be a counterweight to the environmental side. We need a balance. And no one is more interested than us in taking care of nature. Because nature is what we sell. We don’t want to destroy anything, or interrupt any animal life, and that balance has to be stable all the time. But it’s an ongoing process.
AE: What is the stance of the (Norwegian) Svalbard tourist board on facilitating or encouraging the Russian settlements to develop their side of tourism in and around the archipelago? For example, is it a good thing for Longyearbyen for Barentsburg to build a tourism industry?
RB: We don’t see a problem with this. I’d imagine you won’t get any kind of comment from the Sysselmann – they’ll just say that as long as the regulations are being followed then everything is ok. But we applaud it. The Trust Arctikugol (the Russian state-owned coal mining company which is overseeing tourist development in Barentsburg and Pyramiden) is one of our members, and they presented their plans at our annual meeting we had in late May. They presented their ideas and they were really well taken in by other members. We need good products, not products which we don’t know if they will open or if they are good or where they can book. So we’re hoping that the new plans will raise the quality without losing the Russian aspect of things, if you see what I mean. Because it would be nice if they could not just be another tourist place, but somewhere that is overtly culturally and architecturally Russian. But hopefully they will succeed.
AE: It’s understandable why people would be skeptical. Several years ago the phone number of the hotel in Barentsburg didn’t even work.
RB: As I understand it there are two things – or three if you take into consideration that they now answer the phone. This time they have put heavy investments into it money-wise and they also have Timofej, who is a real capacity. We heard when he spoke at the meeting that oh, ok, this is a guy who knows what he is talking about, someone who has some real experience in tourism. So they have money and they have at least one person as head of the development. But what I don’t know anything about is whether there are conflicting interests and who is really the boss in the system. I know there is some concern about this – what do they really want? I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to see.
AE: There was long a suspicion that the flatlining coal mining industry in Barentsburg – and the modicum of an effort to start a tourism industry in Barentsburg – was all just a front, a cover for Russia to maintain a geopolitically strategic outpost in the European High Arctic, to have a presence. Is there a sense that this is still the case?
RB: But isn’t that the same thing with Longyearbyen – strategic-wise for Norway? Why have an outpost up here? They have to invest a lot of money every year for keeping things up.
AE: Does the Norwegian State lose money on Svalbard?
RB: They must do. I can’t see how they can earn any money on this. I don’t know. Maybe with Store Norske for the few years when they were really taking out a lot of coal in Svea, maybe then they were earning something. I don’t know. Take the energy plant – everybody knows they want to build a new one. The current one is very old. But it will cost between 1.5 and 2 billion NOK to build it. And you can never make such a return on an investment with just 2,500 people paying for it. So why? But that is not my question to answer. We just need the possibilities to do business, and some of the basic infrastructure has to be paid for by the Norwegian State. And that is not just Longyearbyen – that is the case though with many small places all over Norway, where you have to build roads and bridges and infrastructure. You might just say that this is the way we do it.
AE: Is there something of an us-versus-them mentality that pervades up here with respect to Norwegians and Russians?
RB: My impression is that that inter-human relations between people in Longyearbyen and Barentsburg is quite good – and it used to be the same in Pyramiden (when people lived there). That’s what I thought it was. You have cultural exchange things, and you visit each other’s national days and they fly the kids in here and to Barentsburg for doing sports. I’ve never heard that there has been a bad relationship between the Norwegians and the Russians up here. I’ve been to some of those exchange things and while there are huge cultural differences and linguistic difficulties – you can only really communicate with a few who know English. But for those I know who have stayed here for a long time, they do have good friends in the Russian community. It was even that way during the Cold War. It might be that we look upon ourselves as doing things a little better. The only thing I know is that it’s always very hard to get information. I’ve communicated that to them that if things are going to work we need to get information, we need to know how to get a hold of people for booking and for questions and all that. And they have to have people speaking English and actually answering the phone and answering the emails. That is vital. They can build as many hotels as they like but if that basic thing is not in place then it won’t matter.
AE: What is your impression of the Russians’ plans for building a workable tourism industry in Barentsburg?
RB: We’ve just got the headlines. They’re investing in hotels, in hostels, in restaurants, in boats, in snowmobiles, in Russian English-Norwegian speaking guides. They are working on the transport issue between Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, which is a vital question. But it seems like they are actually investing money. In their presentation to us, they themselves said, “If you visit Barentburg today, what is there to do? Nothing. After two hours, it’s enough. If we’re going to succeed, we need to give people things to see and do.” These are not my words – they are theirs. They will need to do nature-based things but also things that introduce visitors to aspects of Russian and Pomor culture. It seems like there is a big plan, though I’ve only seen the half-hour oral presentation at the meeting, which seemed promising. They need to be professionals: it’s not just build a hotel and buy some snowscooters – they have to follow through.
AE: Thanks very much for your time Ronny.
RB: You’re welcome.