An icy welcome: Why Arctic tourists are getting glacial treatment in Svalbard

Watch: Drone footage shows Arctic glaciers melting

A cruise to Svalbard, the Arctic archipelago, is a long-held dream for many. Visitors hope to see polar bears, reindeer, whales, narwhals and glaciers as they journey through the fjords towards the land of ice and snow.

Now, however, Norway has placed limits on the crowd's tourist activities, with a ban on cruise liners offering rides on helicopters or submarines. Aware that the environment is increasingly coming under threat from climate change and visitor numbers, the Norwegian government recently published proposals limiting visitors in protected areas to 200 per ship, and has reduced the number of spots where they can leave to the ship to 42. 

Alongside the strictures, there's also a rule that nobody must wander with 500 metres of a polar bear to avoid disturbing them, and in several regions, drones have been banned, and motor vehicles have been banned from sea ice during the summer months to avoid disrupting seals, polar bears and bird colonies.

Kreuzfahrtschiff MS
A cruise ship heads through Spitzbergen. (Photo by Peter Bischoff/Getty Images)

One liner operator, Scenic Eclipse, has already had its proposals turned down for a submarine offering guests the chance to tour the underwater landscape, at depths of up to 300m. 

Norway's Environment Agency has revealed that tourist visits to the region leapt from 29,600 in 1996 to 124,000 in 2019, and a fresh surge is expected post lockdown.

But with only 2,900 permanent residents, they argue, Svalbard cannot sustain the influx of people.

Read more: 'We live in a bubble': What life has been like on the European island with zero COVID cases

“Rapid climate change has made the nature in Svalbard more vulnerable. Meanwhile, tourism and traffic has increased significantly. This has left its mark on several places in Svalbard,” said a spokesperson.

It has recently been reported, too, that as global warming melts Arctic ice floes, polar bears are struggling to reach each other to mate, and researchers have noted an 'alarming' drop in genetic diversity, as the bears are resorting to inbreeding as a result.

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) standing upright on fjord ice at Sabinebukta Bay at Irminger Point on summer morning.
A polar bear stands on fjord ice at Sabinebukta Bay and scans the horizon. (Getty Images)

The Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø has been studying the polar bears' patterns over Svalbard’s islands in the Barents Sea since 1995, but over the last few years has noted a dramatic change in both movement and mating habits.

Read more: Svalbard glaciers lost their protective buffer in the mid-1980s and have been melting ever since

Around 60 per cent of the Svalbard region is glaciers, with mountains and fjords making up the rest of the archipelago's geography. There are seven national parks and 23 nature reserves covering two thirds of the area, to protect the delicate environment. 

But 2016 was the warmest year on record, with a mean temperature 7.5°C above the average over the decades 1961-90, while rainfall was measured regularly on days when snowfall would normally have been expected. 

In July 2020, a new record temperature of 21.7 °C was measured. 

One of the most northernmost cities in the world
Longyearbyen, Svalbard, one of the most northernmost cities in the world (Getty Images)
A helicopter takes off from a coast guard icebreaker, headed for Longyear city on Spitsbergen, Svalbard. The shadow of the ship can be seen in the lower left corner.
Tourist rides over the ice floes will no longer be permitted. (Getty Images)

When the ice melts, it creates more open water. Its darker surface absorbs sunlight instead of reflecting, which heats it up and melts more ice more quickly, increasing the problem. 

The new proposals may seem a drop in the ocean under the circumstances - but at this stage, limiting visitors and their activities may be the only feasible way to help protect Svalbard's fragile environments, and threatened animals.

Watch: Rare footage of Arctic narwhals