The Arctic’s tricky quest for sustainable tourism

Home to polar bears, the midnight sun and the northern lights, a Norwegian archipelago perched high in the Arctic is trying to find a way to profit from its pristine wilderness without ruining it.

The Svalbard archipelago, located 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole and reachable by commercial airline flights, offers visitors vast expanses of untouched nature, with majestic mountains, glaciers and frozen fjords.

Or, the fjords used to be frozen. Svalbard is now on the frontline of climate change, with the Arctic warming three times faster than the planet.

The local coal mines, the original reason for human settlements here, have closed one after the other over the years, and tourism has become one of the main pillars of the local economy, along with scientific research.

"It's always hard to defend because we know that tourism worldwide creates challenges to all the places people visit, but also in the bigger climate change perspective," acknowledged Ronny Brunvoll, the head of tourism board Visit Svalbard.
"But we can't stop people from traveling. We can't stop people from visiting each other, so we have to find solutions," he said.

Around 140,000 people visit these latitudes each year, according to pre-pandemic data, where 65 percent of the land is protected.

Like the 3,000 local residents, visitors must follow strict rules that bar them from disturbing the animals, tracking a polar bear can lead to a big fine, or picking flowers in an ecosystem almost devoid of vegetation.

"You are really confronted with nature. There are not a lot of places like this left," said Frederique Barraja, a French photographer on one of her frequent trips to the region.

"It attracts people, like all rare places. But these...

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