Svalbard airport degraded with a penstroke
While the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries and local businesses want increased tourism at Svalbard, the Ministry of Transport and Communications throttles air traffic to Longyearbyen.
As of last Sunday, October 1 Svalbard airport Longyearbyen is no longer an international, but rather a national airport. Direct flights from abroad are thus no longer possible.
- Unexpected decision
Airport Manager Morten Ulsnes said to Svalbardposten, which first mentioned the matter, that the change of the airport’s status surprised him.
- As far as buildings go, we do not have to make any major changes. We just need a minor reconstruction in order to satisfy requirements related to border control etcetera, Ulsnes says to High North News.
Avinor has capacity
The Svalbard airport manager adds that it would also require some more police presence, however, Avinor has capacity to cover the regular international routes if they had been there.
- In the summer time, we often have several charter flights every week, so we can handle that just fine when it comes to capacity.
The reason why charter traffic can continue as normal is that the industry must meet a requirement of the passenger lists being available at least 48 hours prior to departure, which simplifies controlling the travelers.
Does not make sense
- Do you think this decision is a result of one Department not knowing what the other one does when it comes to Svalbard matters, you think?
- I will be careful about having any opinion on that. We do know that there has been a cross-departmental work process prior to this decision, however, I do not know what has happened there.
Nevertheless, it appears quite obvious that this decision is not quite in accordance with intention of the Svalbard whitepaper and the local businesses’ desire about increased tourism on Svalbard. As an operator of the airport I must say I regret that we will be unable to receive international direct flights, which in all likelihood is where the growth in tourism will have to come from, says Morten Ulsnes, Svalbard Airport Manager.
Local business union is surprised
Terje Aunevik, president of Svalbard Business Union, representative from the Liberals to the local government on Svalbard, and Managing Director of the Pole Position logistics company is also baffled.
- The tourist industry points to international flights as one of the keys to increasing the number of foreign tourists. The marked is still today characterized by Norwegians more than foreigners.
There are also several factors indicating that foreigners are easier attracted to Svalbard also during off-season periods, which in its turn represents an important tool for year-round operations and permanent positions in tourism. This may then contribute to strengthening the family community, as it leads to avoiding intense activities in the peak season with only short-term contracts, which are less attractive for family people, Aunevik says to High North News.
The season must be extended
He also refers to increased tourism being a goal:
- There has, after all, been a broad political debate both locally and nationally about tourism having the opportunity to grow in order to create new jobs and new activity on Svalbard. In fact, public business plans envision that a doubling of the number of employees in tourism would be an acceptable goal.
One wants to achieve this growth primarily through extending the seasons rather than requiring more wildlife areas. Strengthening the attraction of Longyearbyen is key.
It is important, then, to realize that doubling the number of employees requires more than doubling the number of visitors. It requires more tourists to stay here longer, and leaving more money with the local businesses. Perhaps we are talking about increasing the number of tourists threefold in order to double the number of employees in the tourist industry, Terje Aunevik emphasizes.
‘The Finnair Case’ and strengthened Governor
The possibilities for regular flights from abroad to Longyearbyen came into the limelight when Finnair offered tickets for a direct flight from Helsinki to Svalbard in 2016.
Norwegian aviation authorities brought these plans to a halt, among others with reference to the lack of bilateral agreements. Lacking passport control at Longyearbyen airport was also pointed out.
Affects potential growth
Following ‘the Finnair Case’, the Svalbard Governor’s office was strengthened based on the need for a stronger presence at the airport, which many perceived as a forerunner for facilitating passport control too in Longyearbyen. If that had been the case, it would have been possible to have direct flights from abroad.
However, Terje Aunevik adds:
- It is nevertheless obvious that it has a negative effect on the development and growth potential. Nor is it in line with the political signals we receive through a.o. the Svalbard whitepaper.
Svalbard outside Schengen
Last week, fog closed down Tromsø airport in an incident that brought the issue back on the agenda. A scheduled flight from Oslo was heading through Tromsø to Longyearbyen and the passport control was to take place in Tromsø, which in this respect constitutes the outer boundary of the Schengen area.
However, the fog lead to the plane being diverted to Evenes, where passports were not controlled. However, while the Svalbard Governor’s staff prepared to control passports in Longyearbyen, the plane nevertheless had to return to Oslo to conduct the clearing on the mainland.
This may have to do with Svalbard being located outside the Schengen area, which may also have been a factor when downgrading Svalbard airport.
Waiting for the Ministry of Transport and Communications
High North News has tried for the past 24 hours to get a comment from the political leadership of the Transport and Communications Ministry on this issue. We have asked among other about what the grounds for downgrading Svalbard airport are, about whether or not that Ministry shares the desire of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries about increased tourism on Svalbard, about whether Svalbard’s location – outside the Schengen area – is a contributing factor in the downgrading decision, and about what it would take for the airport in Longyearbyen to once again have an ‘international’ status.
The ministry responds
State Secretary Tom Cato Karlsen of the Ministry of Transport and Communications in a response to High North News points out that existing traffic to and from Svalbard will not be affected in the change to the airport’s status.
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