Svalbard - an introduction
Svalbard - also known as Spitsbergen is one of the worlds most exotic travel destinations. Svalbard is a group of islands located about midway between Norway and the North Pole. The islands are administered by Norway.
Svalbard is the northernmost tip of Europe and its settlements are the northernmost permanently inhabited spots on the planet. Located between the 76° and 81° parallels, they are far more northerly than any part of Alaska and all but a few of Canada’s Arctic islands. In fact, they would be permanently locked in by ice if not for the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream, and it is this comparative warmth that makes them habitable. The combined permanent population is less than 3000, nearly all of which is concentrated in the main settlements of Longyearbyen and Barentsburg on Spitsbergen.
The islands are governed by Sysselmann på Svalbard, literally if slightly awkwardly translated into English as the Governor of Svalbard; this is not a single person, but the administrative team responsible for police, fire, rescue, and other public services on the islands.
Before you go to Svalbard, you should plan your trip carefully, and make as many arrangements as possible before you actually travel to Svalbard.
Svalbard is a great place to go, and an excellent place for exploring the arctic nature and wildlife, but Svalbard is not a resort. In this guide we will try to prepare you as good as possible, so that you can enjoy your trip there.
The official language is Norwegian, although Russian is spoken in Barentsburg. Practically everybody in the tourist industry speaks English.
Note: In most of Svalbard’s buildings, including some hotels and shops, you are expected to take off your shoes before entering.
The climate on Svalbard
Svalbard literally means “cold edge”. The climate is Arctic, tempered by warm North Atlantic Current. Summers are cool (July average 6.1°C) and winters are cold (January average -15.8°C), but wind chill means that it usually feels colder. The North Atlantic Current flows along west and north coasts of Spitsbergen, keeping water open and navigable most of the year. The high travel season is during Svalbard’s brief summer, from June to August, when it’s light and not too cold outside. However, the so-called “light winter” (March-May), when there is both sunlight and snow, is also increasingly popular for winter sports.
Svalbard features the midnight sun from April 20 to August 23, although the sun itself is often hidden behind dense banks of fog. Conversely, the sun stays under the horizon during the polar night from October 26 to February 15. These two factors mean that the islands tend to lack sunlight year round.
The History of Svalbard
Svalbard was allegedly first discovered by Viking explorers in the 12th century. However the first recorded voyage here was by the Dutch in 1596, landing on the northwest of Spitsbergen. This coast served as an international whaling base during the 17th and 18th centuries. Norway’s sovereignty was recognized in 1905; five years later it officially took over the territory. However, the Svalbard Treaty gives “absolute equality” to other nations wishing to exploit mineral deposits, and Russia continues to maintain a significant population on the island.
Cities on Svalbard
All settlements in Svalbard are located on the main island of Spitsbergen (or Vest-Spitsbergen).
- Barentsburg — sole remaining Russian settlement, population 700
- Hornsund — Polish research station, population around 10
- Longyearbyen — the “capital” and main Norwegian settlement with a population of 1,800
- Ny-Ålesund — the northernmost settlement in the world, population under 100
- Sveagruva — population 210
The other islands of Svalbard are uninhabited and, as they are all nature reserves, generally inaccessible without special permission. The islands can be divided into two groups: the Spitsbergen group of Barentsøya, Edgeøya, Nordaustlandet and Prins Karls Forland, and the more remote islands of Bjørnøya, Hopen, Kong Karls Land and Kvitøya.
Get into Svalbard
Getting in is expensive and time-consuming. In legal theory, citizens of the 41 signatories of the Svalbard treaty (including such unlikely countries as Afghanistan and the Dominican Republic) need no visas or other permits to visit – or even work – in Svalbard. However, in practice it’s difficult to arrive in Svalbard without transiting through Norway, and as Norway considers Svalbard a domestic destination, you’ll need to pass through Norwegian immigration first. In the other direction, Norway reserves the right to check the passports of passengers coming from Svalbard.
Longyearbyen has the largest airport on the islands. SAS flies scheduled flights from Oslo (3 hours) and Tromsø (1.5 hours, US$400 return), and there are occasional charters from Murmansk or Moscow.
There is one way of flying to Svalbard on the cheap: flights to Longyearbyen are considered a domestic flight like any other, so an SAS EuroBonus award ticket from anywhere in Scandinavia to Svalbard costs just 12,000 EuroBonus points. This little loophole is well known by SAS frequent flyers and award availability is quite limited, so book well in advance if planning to use this.
In the summer there is a boat service from Tromsø once a week. The journey takes 2-3 days and prices are generally at least as steep as flights. Occasional boats also operate from Murmansk to Barentsburg.
Get around Svalbard
There are no roads on Svalbard. Travel between islands and settlements can be done by plane or helicopter any time of year. Boats can be used in summer, and snowmobiles are a popular option in winter.
What to see on Svalbard
Svalbard’s visitors come mostly to experience Arctic nature at its rawest and most powerful. The islands feature untouched glaciers and craggy mountains, dotted with polar bears, reindeer, seals and walruses.
The Soviet-era settlements of Barentsburg, still running fitfully, and Pyramiden, abandoned in the 1990s, also make offbeat attractions, being home to (among other things) the world’s two northernmost Lenin statues. Both can be visited by cruise or snowmobile from Longyearbyen.
What to eat and drink on svalbard
Food on Svalbard is pretty much the same as anywhere in Norway, only more expensive because it’s all imported. Local specialities include seal and reindeer.
Alcohol is duty-free on Svalbard and thus less expensive than on the Norwegian mainland. If you head over to Barentsburg, Russian vodka can be outright cheap.
A popular party trick for glacier cruises is drinks served with glacier ice, purified by natural processes over thousands of years.
Accomodation on Svalbard
A range of accommodation is available only on Longyearbyen, which offers camping, guesthouses and luxury hotels. Barentsburg and Ny-Ålesund also have a single hotel each.
The biggest threat on Svalbard is polar bears, some 500 of which inhabit the main islands at any one time. Five people have been killed by polar bears since 1973, and if travelling outside settlements you are required to carry a rifle at all times to protect yourself. They can be rented for 100 kr and up per day, no license needed, although experience in using it is very strongly advised (or, better yet, stick to guided tours). The harsh Arctic environment also poses its own challenges, particularly in winter. Crossing glaciers and rivers can be hazardous and travelling with local guides is strongly recommended. If heading out on your own, informing the Governor of Svalbard about your route and expected duration is highly advisable. For any trips outside central region of Spitsbergen, you must notify the Governor, and may be required to purchase insurance or put up a large deposit to cover possible rescue costs.
Tap water on Svalbard is drinkable, but surface water may contain tapeworm eggs from fox feces and should be boiled before consumption.
There are no pharmacies on Svalbard, although you can buy some non-prescription drugs in Longyearbyen, which also has a hospital for treating emergencies.