This time last year, I was getting ready for my first ever trip to somewhere really and truly remote – Svalbard, a frozen archipelago separated from northermost mainland Europe by five hundred miles of Arctic Ocean.
As a destination for travellers and tourists, Svalbard is developing a certain popularity – a popularity severely limited, for the best, by there only being eleven flights in per week and only half a dozen hotels on the entire archipelago. But why would you want to go there?
Why would you want to go somewhere where the sun simply doesn’t rise for three months of the winter? Why would you want to go somewhere so blisteringly cold? Why would you want to go somewhere where you can’t leave the city limits without a rifle for fear of being attacked by a polar bear? Why would you want to go on holiday to the High Arctic?
Because Svalbard revels in being untouched and pristine. Compare it to Iceland, my favourite country in the world, where the capital is about the collapse under the pressure of tourism and where every waterfall now has an overfilled tarmac car park in front of it. Outside of a single narrow valley, home to its capital, Longyearbyen, a city of a little over 2000 souls, there’s barely a sign humanity has ever found this island. Outside Longyearbyen, there’s only one road and it’s only thirteen miles long. There are only three or four or five other settlements, most of them abandoned, all of them small mining towns for coal mines long worked out, none of them accessible by anything except boat, snowmobile or very exceptional charter flights, which are in themselves mostly only open to miners.
There are just a handful of hotels, hostels, apartments and guesthouses in town and half a handful of accommodation in the other settlements – about 800 tourist beds in total. There’s a campsite two and a half miles from the city which you can use out of season, but between the total lack of even toilets and the polar bear risk, not to mention the extreme cold, you’d have to be mad to camp there during winter. There’s a handful of shops – the basics a small settlement needs like a post office, supermarket and pharmacy plus a very small handful of more tourism-oriented shops and at least four outdoors shops to make absolutely sure you’ve got everything you could need to survive the weather here. All this means that it’s impossible for tourism to overwhelm the town and even so, tourism is Svalbard’s biggest employer.
Because people want to go there. People want the unusual experience of twenty-four hour darkness, of thick snow and unspoiled mountains, of trips out into the wilderness. Dogsledding and snowmobiling are hugely popular adventurous activities. Somewhere as far north as this and with as much darkness as this is a great place for looking for the Northern Lights – and you don’t have to wait until midnight because they can be visible in the middle of the afternoon. You can go out on an Arctic cruise, looking for whales and seals and migratory birds, visiting remote beaches and abandoned towns, places where it feels like no human foot has ever trodden. “More people have been to the moon” and so on. This is novel and exciting and stunningly beautiful, with a hint of danger that’s well enough controlled for it to not be a real danger to most people.
And that’s just the winter. In the summer, Svalbard is green as green can be. It has to be. All the flora has to come out at once to make the most of the brief warmth and the sun. Svalbard meadows are an absolute riot of colour in the summer and hikers descend on the archipelago to climb hills and mountains that are utterly impossible in their winter coats of ice and snow. There’s kayaking and horse riding and expeditions, ATV trips in place of snowmobile ones, wheels are put on the dogsleds – anything you can in winter you can also do in summer, but with some daylight.
Why do people live here, by the way? What’s bringing people to an island that’s pitch black for three months in the winter, where polar bears outnumber people and there’s next to nothing except unbridled beauty outside the tiny capital? Svalbard’s big employers are, in no particular order, coal mining, the satellite station, the university, the Governor’s office and tourism. Plus there’s got to be a few people keeping the place running – teachers at the three schools, bus drivers, snowmobile mechanics, airport staff etc. Somewhere as remote as Svalbard is great for scientific study, both of the astronomical type (the satellite station) and Arctic studies (the university). There are rules – odd rules, for anywhere else in the world. They don’t really have much in the way of healthcare and if you don’t work, you can’t be here. Therefore there are no retired people, very few disabled people, no one is allowed to die here, they can’t treat serious illness here. 20% of the population is under 15, which is what comes of the other 80% being working – and therefore child-rearing – age. The only exception to the rule about working is the students, and most of them have a part-time job in one of the hotels or bars to supplement their studies.
Svalbard is at once very expensive and very cheap. Everything – but everything – is imported, which costs. On the other hand, it’s a duty-free area so there’s no tax on anything, which makes it cheaper. And since it has no native population, even the people are imported. A significant proportion of them are Norwegian, and a significant proportion of the miners are Russian, but the second biggest nationality in Svalbard is actually Thai and the rest are a hotch-potch collection of Ukrainian, Swedish, Danish, German and dozens of others all living happily together in their dark frozen bit of paradise.
What is it about Svalbard? Well, no one really knows and everyone has their own reason for being there – because no one, tourists and locals alike, is there without a reason. But the unspoiled nature is probably a huge part of it and some people just want to see a polar bear.