"Visit Spitsbergen at Least Once in Your Life"
Interview with Tatyana Ageyeva, head of the Grumant Center for Arctic Tourism14 december 2022
Spitsbergen, also known as Svalbard or Grumant, is an special place where tourists can participate in expeditions and legitimate scientific research. Tatyana Ageyeva, head of the Grumant Center for Arctic Tourism, told our portal about new tourism-related developments in this region. She explained how the archipelago is getting ready for a new tourist season, why all tour guides have to attend Red Cross training, and why everyone should visit Spitsbergen at least once in their lifetime.
Who can go to the Arctic
Tatyana, right now it's the middle of a polar night on Svalbard. What is the Center engaged in now?
Intensive preparations for the upcoming tourist season take place in December. Guests are welcome at any time, of course, but the proper winter season officially starts in mid- to late February and lasts until late April or early May, depending on the weather and the snow cover.
Therefore, we are currently working with the staff and assessing the equipment's readiness. Depending on their prior experience on Svalbard, the guides either train or retrain under the supervision of the senior guide. Guides also must go through Red Cross courses. We'll take our first snowmobile trip as soon as the snow is deep enough, during which we'll lay out the route, make any necessary corrections, and upload it to all of our devices. Even without taking into account sales or everything else, this is a significant amount of work. I don't even count in sales, creating future routes, or composing materials for guided tours; the scope of work is still impressive.
Red Cross courses sound very extreme, possibly even not really touristy.
I mean, this is the Arctic. Anything at all can happen here. You must be ready for anything because the local environment is harsh. Also, the tours we offer here go beyond simple tourist trap affairs like riding a snowmobile for 15 minutes and a couple of laps. The Center's job is to make sure everyone is as safe as possible because our guests are embarking on a real expedition here. Travelers are required to attend a briefing when they arrive because setting out on the route means a big responsibility for everyone.
Consider the Kola Peninsula as a comparison. There, the weather can change each three hours. Here, it can become completely different in just an hour, while you're already well on your way, 70 or even 100 km into your snowmobile trip.
You suddenly find yourself in a snowy desert with no visibility and in the middle of a world that looks like white milk.
In such circumstances, you must ensure that everyone on the ground is familiar with the instructions for weather changes and the passage through glaciers and avalanche-prone areas. Not to mention potential crises that might require calling in a helicopter, for instance. The staff must be well-advised of what to do until the chopper arrives. Therefore, an operations manager stays in constant communication with the guides and keeps an eye on each group.
These challenging conditions attract a lot of tourists. So how did this year's tourist season in Spitsbergen go?
Ever since 2019 and 2020, all forms of tourism have been facing challenges. Following COVID, to which the sector was only recently able to adapt, came foreign policy-related events. Of course, this year was no exception, so discussing any hard statistics would not be very wise. Our Center was founded only in 2013, when the decision was made to develop tourism here in a bid to diversify the business. In 2019, the Center saw a total of 36,000 visitors, good for the second-highest number of tourists in Spitsbergen.
The challenges went nowhere, but we now tend to view them as task to be solved rather than problems. Remember how Russian credit cards were rendered useless abroad? That made it impossible for our visitors to make hotel reservations or souvenir purchases on their own.
That was when we developed package tours. In addition to accommodation in Spitsbergen, they provide for airfare, hotels, meals, and the paperwork needed when transferring through the Schengen area. We work as a one-stop-shop here: the tourist pays for their trip in roubles, and we handle the rest.
The same is true for on-site payments; in our settlements, Russian credit cards are accepted for payment, despite the fact that Spitsbergen is Norwegian territory and that country's currency is the kroner. That gives us a significant advantage.
A Pristine Place on the Earth
How do you organize your work to draw in new visitors?
Firstly, we participate in Arctic-related events. Secondly, of course, we work online, with social media as one of the aspects. Thirdly, we are establishing communication with a network of partners. Our global plans include cruise tourists in addition to travelers who have Svalbard as their entire vacation's location. About 1,400 cruise ships, small vessels, and yachts called in our ports before the pandemic.
We see a growing number of people traveling to the archipelago on their private yachts. The Norwegian port is already overloaded, so there is a severe lack of infrastructure. We are therefore working on establishing a maritime service center in the port of Longyearbyen for 2023. In order to address all of the common problems faced by yachtsmen, we want to set up a place where they could refuel, recharge, spend the night, wash their clothes, and so on. We welcome all forms of interaction, cooperation, and knowledge sharing here. We're sure it'll be a very attractive offering.
Given the costs, the market for cruises and yachts that can navigate Northern waters seems to be relatively small. So you prioritize affluent travelers?
Given where we are, it is important to comprehend that the cost of an Arctic cruise is obviously higher than that of a traditional cruise on a regular ship. The delivery of food, consumables, and spare parts alone really adds up. The North Pole is a stone's throw away from us - that's only 1,000 kilometers. This is very telling for those who work in the tourism industry.
Moreover, it goes beyond sheer logistics. We intend to design our tours so that travelers can engage in master classes, meet with actual polar explorers and scientists, and listen to fascinating lectures while on board the ship. It's more than just a transfer; you get the most of the best available for that type of cash. After all, emotions are what drive tourism, not numbers. You gain something unquantifiable when you travel. You expand your horizons, revitalize, pick up some fresh ideas, and continue on as a new person.
And what about nature? As far as man-made pressure goes, can the archipelago even take more tourists?
When it comes to protecting Arctic wildlife and nature, both the Norwegians and us exercise extreme caution. There is no scientifically calculated load; however, we follow and fully abide by environmental laws. For instance, we always give advance notice when visiting national parks, and ensure that visitors are well-informed about where they can go on foot, where they cannot, and where they are allowed to set up a campsite. All of these issues, which we frequently discuss in meetings with the governor of Svalbard, are being closely monitored.
In our fast-paced world, there are fewer and fewer locations where you can still feel as though no man has ever been there before. On Spitsbergen, however, this feeling is more alive than ever. Time seems to slow down here, allowing you to stop and truly revel in the moment, imagining yourself to be the only person amidst this snow-covered beauty. This is one of the reasons to visit Spitsbergen at least once in your life. Also, the Northern Lights here are really something! As a native of Murmansk - trust me, I know what I'm talking about.