Northern Exposure: Svalbard Is the Most Visited High Arctic Destination. Christian Amodeo Discovers How the `Land of the Cold Coasts' Is Handling the Attention

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LONGYEARBYEN AIRPORT IS A PRIMITIVE building, in stark contrast to the swish contemporary affair at Oslo, some three hours due south on the Norwegian mainland. Svalbard has a frontier atmosphere, emphasised by a polar bear that awaits your arrival. Stuffed it may be, but with unfeasibly large claws and a plaque that states this hulking creature is merely a `small' specimen, I get the message loud and clear--I am in their neck of the woods now.

Or rather, I would be if there were any trees on Svalbard. Their absence and the clean cold are the first things I register. A 63,000-square-kilometre archipelago comprising four main islands and around 150 smaller ones, lying between ten degrees and 35[degrees] east and 74[degrees] and 81[degrees] north, it is a barren arctic landscape of peaks rising out of the icy sea--Svalbard means `the land of the cold coasts'. Europe's most northerly territory also boasts the world's most northerly settlement, Ny-Alesund. In fact, you can't go much farther north and still call it travelling. Beyond here it becomes exploration.

Svalbard's sysselmannen, or governor, is keen to preserve this jewel in Norway's crown while sharing it with the wider world. Daily flights from Norway, and easy sea-access for much of the year have helped it become the most visited high arctic location. But the authorities have been quick to respond to the consequences of tourism's controlled growth. July saw the arrival of the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act. While half the archipelago was already protected by national parks or reserves, the new legislation consolidates previous laws and introduces the principle that all its flora and fauna is protected.

Svalbard receives around 60,000 visitors each year. The majority first glimpse its peaks from a ship's deck--just as its official discoverer Willem Barents did in 1596. It is reassuring that despite a lengthy interlude of exploitation in the form of hunting, whaling, fishing and mining, Svalbard is today little different to the place he discovered. He called it Spitsbergen, meaning `sharp, pointed mountains', the name now given to the largest island, on which the main settlement Longyearbyen is located.

Ostensibly a mining town until the late 1980s, Longyearbyen is a collection of coloured wooden chalet-type buildings on stilts in a long, flat-bottomed, high-sided glacial valley that might provoke an `Is this it?' from new arrivals. Yet this outpost is the gateway to an incredible wilderness, a tourist wonderland of wildlife and exciting activities. It is thanks to tourism and, to a lesser extent, to research, that Longyearbyen has significantly developed into a far more gender-balanced, three-dimensional society. But a `normal' community, it is not. Each year many inhabitants return to the mainland after their work permits have expired, and are replaced by new professionals eager to taste life on the wild side.

Trudging up the sleepy main street, which is more a wide footpath, I pass a pizzeria (owned by Iranians, I discover) and a greyish Svalbard reindeer with fierce looking antlers. It is so indifferent to my presence that I feel obliged to ignore it in return. Up ahead a young woman is striding towards Svalbardbutikken, the general store. It is the rifle slung over her shoulder that draws my attention. Most people who live towards the edges of Longyearbyen carry a rifle in case they meet one of the polar bears that have been known to pay a visit. I suddenly feel rather vulnerable.

Remnants of the industrious past have become its heritage. The law protects signs of human activity from before 1945. Old mines cling precariously to the steep valley sides high above the town. In the entrance to Svalbard's small museum, where visitors are asked to remove their shoes, as is the custom, are weather-beaten signs of 19th- and early 20th-century mines run by commercial outfits that carved up for themselves a land void of an indigenous population. …

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