While tourism in Longyearbyen is down, Barentsburg builds a new kennel, educates its staff and braces for the future.
Alexandra Kazakova sits in the office of Barentsburg’s dog yard with a cup of hot tea. There are cages out in the hall, should any of the 80 dogs need to stay inside.
In the other end of the building is a large room smelling of fresh wood, and a couple of carpenters are still at work.
Here, inside what used to be a cow barn, the Russian state-owned tourism company Arctic Travel Company Grumant will receive tourist groups. Through large windows, guests will have a panoramic view to the Grøn Fjord.
The dog yard project started in December 2016 as part of the Russian tourism initiative in the Barentsburg mining community.
“The company invests a lot in the dog yard”, says Kazakova.
As many as before the pandemic
It was the director of the tourist company Timofey Rogozhin who asked Kazakova if she would like to take part in the establishing of the kennel, as she had had a rescue dog back home in Russia.
She did not hesitate in taking up the offer and is now one out of four people who work with mushing and handling.
A dog life
Alexandra Kazakova was involved in starting up the kennel in Barentsburg in December 2016. Now, they have 80 dogs.
The kennel is located on the outskirts of Barentsburg, in an area where there used to be barns and greenhouses. Many of the old buildings have been torn down, and workers are now dismantling the hall next to the kennel.
After a ten minutes’ walk along the fjord we find the center of Barentsburg.
Rogozhin’s office is on the first floor of an older, recently refurbished tree house by the main street. The wall towards the Grøn Fjord is painted in three nuances of blue, taking cue from the mountains on the horizon.
On a noticeboard, a picture of a guide with a body thermometer in its hand, posing like the Blade Runner. As part of the Corona measures here, all members of staff have to check their own temperature at regular intervals.
“The staff is the same as before the pandemic hit, except a few who were unable to return due to closed borders. There are currently 80 of us working with tourism”, Rogozhin says through one of his co-workers, who acts as an interpreter.
Investing in the future
The Arctic Travel Company Grumant has taken the opportunity to do all the work they otherwise do not find time for, and the guides have been educated. When peak season comes, he will need his staff. If they had been furloughed, starting up again would have been all the more difficult.
“Right now we do not have as big challenges as they do in Longyearbyen; however, if the season does not start in February/March, this will be a tragedy for us, too”, the tourist manager says.
He adds that the company has reduced salaries a bit:
“But it is better for people to be here and have a job and a salary, rather than going home having neither”, he says.
The difference in staff between peak season and low season, the latter being the season between November and January, is some 30 persons.
“The winter season is getting busier ever year. Therefore, we always need new staff. We have two months of very little activity in November and December. Earlier, the first tourists would arrive mid-February. Today, they arrive mid-January. There are not many of them, but they are coming”, he says.
The company works on developing polar night products, though there are challenges as neither snowmobiles nor vessels travel between settlements from November to some time in January.
Down into the mine
High North News’ journalist visits Barentsburg mid-October, towards the end of the season. And now there are more guests here. A Swedish family spends the night at the Pomor Hostel and the folk high school expedition class spends the night at Barentsburg hotel.
The pupils are going on a guided tour down into the coalmine, the black hole at the center of the settlement. At 7 a.m., there was a change of staff in the mine and workers went in an out from the administration building in the town center. Now, the pupils are up.
Down the stairs to the basement, where black coal dust still lies on the floor.
The pupils follow their guide into a dressing room. A miner meets them and demonstrates how the self-rescuer works; the box they have to carry on their body to make sure they will have oxygen if anything were to happen with the gases inside the mine.
Into the dark
A group from the folk high school in Longyearbyen is on a guided tour in the mine
Everybody is registered in the system through a chip in their respective belts. The miner calls the head office to make sure everyone is registered. Somewhere else in the building, someone is monitoring the people in the mine on a screen. Now, they monitor the pupils too.
They walk through a tunnel-covering construction built from wood and continue down several flights of stairs. On the walls are original posters from the Soviet days, remining workers to take security seriously.
On one poster, a coalminer is asleep on the coal transport band while to nurses wait with a stretcher at the end of the band.
At the end of the staircase, a coal loading facility. There is a light buzz from small railway cars that are filled with dried, fine-grained coal that feels warm to the fingers in the crisp autumn air. The cars continue towards the energy plant further in in the fjord.
Russian Trust Arktikugol took over the line here in 1932. It now has an estimated life span of another 20 years.
Wants to get rid of the Soviet style
Back in the tourist office, Rogozhin says it was the Director General of Trust Arktikugol who back in 2010 conceived the idea of developing tourism in Barentsburg.
“If we are to transition away from coalmining, we have to develop tourism”, Rogozhin says.
A breath from the past
The administration building of the mining company Trust Arktikugol (right), where also miners and tourists visiting the mine enter. To the left of the administration building lies the brewery and restaurant house Red Bear.
When he started out as Head of Tourism at Trust Arktikugol and with Arctic Travel Company Grumant in 2014, there were to permanent employees in the tourist industry. The town’s hotel had just been renovated. Day-trip boats would arrive in town, which also boasted a small souvenir shop.
In addition, the company had just started opening the ghost town of Pyramiden to tourists. Rogozhin started drafting a business plan.
He did not like the idea of people arriving in Barentsburg seeing the settlement as an old, scary Soviet’ish place. He wanted to transform it into a town that could tell different Arctic tales as several nationalities and cultures have met and continue to meet in Barentsburg.
In recent years, the town has gone through major changes. The old brick houses have been clothed with colorful boards. Old wooden houses have been torn down or renovated.
The hotel is now accompanied by a guest house named the Pomor Hostel, which has pomor decorations and is set to tell the stories of the people from the White Sea who traveled to Svalbard in the 1700s to trap walruses, amongst others.
On the other side of the street, the Russians have build the beer brewery and restaurant those Red Bear.
Everything is open, even during the Corona crisis.
The office building where Rogozhin works used to be a museum but has been fully renovated. Today, it houses a tourist office, a tourist information office as well as the post office.
“When we were to build the post office, we first traveled to Lillehammer to check out the post office there for inspiration”, the tourist manager says.
The turquoise building used to be a consulate. Now, it has been renovated and is home to the museum. The consulate has moved to the building in the back, to the left. The block consists of flats.
Further down the street we find the old consulate with its large balcony and round pillars. It has been transformed into a museum. The restaurant at the hotel has become a fish-only restaurant serving self-caught fish, with interior based on the two famous icebreakers Krasin and Lenin.
The concept of Pyramiden [the Pyramid] is a Soviet town frozen in time, an open-air museum. The whole hotel has been renovated and building after building comes to life after Russians left the settlement in 1998.
The guests of the Arctic Travel Company Grumant have mainly been Russian-speakers. On the longer tours, those lasting five to eight days, they still dominate.
However, in recent years the Russians have marketed their destination more to other countries and have also set up a web page with the fairly easier name GoArctica.
The Svalbard Governor is not sufficiently developed to govern tourism. They want to reduce the industry because it is hard for them.
“Today, some 15 percent come from Scandinavia and other European countries. Our goal is to have more tourists here from countries outside Russia. I believe that with time we will end up with 50/50”, Rogozhin says.
Between 600 and 700 tourists have visited their many-days trips in recent years. last year, they had a total of 37,000 visitors, cruise ships included. Rogozhin hopes to bring the annual visitor number up to 100,000 in the longer run. He says the trust made 20 percent more from tourism than from coalmining last year.
“The Russian state subsidizes coalmining in Barentsburg just like the Norwegian state subsidizes mine 7”, Rogozhin says.
Tourism is the future.
In six years, the number of tourist industry employees in Barentsburg has increased from 2 to 80. The building housing the post office and the tourist information (left) is fully renovated. To the right; the school, the Pomor Hostel and the Barentsburg Hotel.
Two fatal accidents
Since its inception, the tourism company has had two death accidents. One guide died following a group of snowmobiles going through a crack in the ice on the Tempel Fjord in April 2017.
In February this year, a German woman died in an avalanche during a combined snowmobile and ice caving trip with the company.
How have these serious accidents affected the company and those working here?
“It is a part of life. Every time something happens, we learn from it and take note so as to avoid it every happening again in the future. Many companies all over the world go through this from time to time”, Rogozhin says.
The company continually strives to improve, both when it comes to product, marketing and sales, and cooperates with among others Visit Svalbard. They are also familiar with the restrictions Norwegian authorities want on tourism.
Rogozhin agrees that there should be a requirement about certification of guides in order to stop freelance guides coming straight from the mainland, and also that floating towns with 4,000 passengers need not enter the northern settlements.
“The Svalbard Governor is not sufficiently developed to govern tourism. They want to reduce the industry because it is hard for them. For instance, they close of fjords in the winter to protect polar bears that are hibernating. I think the problem here is not Svalbard tourist companies. Those causing problems are freelance guides or guests on private trips”, says the tourist manager.
From cows to dogs
The building that is now the kennel (center) was a cow barn before. It is currently being fully renovated inside.
Every day from May through October, day-trip vessels bring tourists from Longyearbyen. Now, the hours of daylight are dwindling by the day, and it is already dusk when High North News’ journalists enters the boat to travel home to the Norwegian settlement.
As does the Swedish family that has spent its holidays in Barentsburg for the fifth time
“I believe it is a combination of great nature and this industrial culture that is slightly derelict, yet still being used”, says Janne Wallenius.
“People lead their everyday lives there. It is great to see”, says his wife Juliana Imgenberg.
Wallenius finds if fascinating that there is an operative coalmine right in the middle of town. In addition, there is the Soviet period legacy.
“It is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Though our kids may not agree”, he says.
He thinks the Russians have built a tourist industry that allows him to feel welcome.
“I always talk with those who live there”, he says.
He is already planning his next trip.
- Russian settlement at the Grøn Fjord in Spitsbergen
- A company town owned by the state-owned mining company Trust Arktikugol. The Arctic Travel Company Grumant is owned by the mining company.
- Has its own school, kindergarten, coal plant, hospital, hotel, culture theatre and sports hall. The town is also home to a Russian consulate as well as a research center.
- Had 455 inhabitants as of July 2020, mainly Ukrainians and Russians.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.