Svalbard, the Arctic archipelago known to many English-speakers by the name of its largest island, Spitsbergen, is the world’s most northerly major tourist attraction and one of the world’s most exciting travel destinations. The island group is both larger and farther north than most people realize: about halfway between the mainland city of Tromsø and the North Pole. Longyearbyen − the world’s northernmost destination served by regular scheduled flights − is only 800 miles (1300 km)from the Pole.
Although Svalbard is under Norwegian sovereignty, it is home to several Russian as well as Norwegian settlements. Overall, coal mining and scientific research are the primary activities; tourism is deliberately kept small-scale − making it a very special experience for the lucky few!
“Svalbard” means “cold coast”, and so it was described in the first written mention of the archipelago in 12th century Icelandic texts. The islands stretch from Bjørnøya (“Bear Island”) in the south to Rossøya, Europe’s northernmost point at over 80 degrees north. About 60 per cent of the islands in the archipelago are permanently covered by ice.
Even though men have been visiting Svalbard for centuries, it was not until 1990 that the Norwegian authorities permitted general tourism. Today there are daily flights,first-class hotels and restaurants, and varied and exciting programmes for visitors.
The unique natural environment of Svalbard is spectacularly beautiful and rich inplant and animal life. Massive glaciers cover 60 per cent of the land, and the fjords are lined with steep cliffs and rugged mountains. But this seemingly eternal landscape is also surprisingly vulnerable. In the not-so-distant past, uncontrolled hunting of whales, walruses and reindeer resulted in sharp declines in their populations, while a growing interest in industrial activities (mainly exploitation of coal, gas, oil and minerals) led to an early awareness on the part of the Norwegian authorities that strict controls were required.
As a result, tourism is carefully supervised − notwith-standing the recent increases in tourist traffic − in terms of numbers of visitors, where they can go, and what they can do. However, this covers a wide range of activities that includes hiking, glacier walking, dogsledding and snow scooter safaris... even the world’s most northerly marathon, an annual event.
The spectacular and abundant wildlife on view includes walruses, three species of true seals, the wild Svalbard reindeer, and Arctic foxes. Whales are often visible just offshore. An encounter with a polar bear is not quite guaranteed, but more than just a possibility anywhere on the archipelago: Svalbard, afterall, is the one of the few places in the world where polar bears roam free.
Some of the North Atlantic’s largest concentrations of birds, hundreds of thousands at a time, also congregate on Svalbard, where the rare little auk, the kittiwake and the fulmar are among the most abundant of the 36 nesting species. Along the coast, and across the tundra in the large valleys, there are large populations of geese and wading birds; and the eider duck nests on all the islands of the archipelago. Almost all of the birds are migratory, spending the winter in the Barents Sea region, along the coast of mainland Norway or on the Continent − an indigenous ptarmigan is the only species that stays on Svalbard all year round.
The rich nutrients found in the Barents Sea are the key source of sustenance for most of the animals living on or around Svalbard. It is the Gulf Stream bringing a potent mix of warm and cold water, relatively shallow waters and round-the-clock sunshine that enables this polar ocean region to be so tremendously productive during the short summer.
Svalbard’s attractions have always been scientific and technological as well as scenic: visitors are fascinated by the world-class research stations at Ny-Ålesund and the celebrated Svalbard Global Seed Vault (also known as the “Doomsday Vault”) in Longyearbyen.
Longyearbyen is also home to the Svalbard Science Centre which incorporates a number of professional and scientific institutions, including the Norwegian Polar Institute, the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) and the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), the world’s northernmost higher education institution focusing on Arctic biology, geology, geophysics and technology.
Its geographical position provides “a unique advantage, enabling students and faculty to use nature as a laboratory, arena for observation and data collection”, UNIS says, while the Svalbard Science Centre has become “a centre of competence for Arctic research, teaching and logistics”.