UK issues Arctic travel warning

Beautiful, but risky due to lack of search and rescue capabilities, says the recently issued British Foreign Office alert. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

The British Foreign Office cautions that search- and rescue capabilities may be less than would be needed to cope with even one of the small cruise ships that frequent parts of the Arctic, like here on Svalbard.


As the Svalbard and Arctic cruising season is under way, the warning issued by the British Foreign Office startles cruise vessel passengers heading to the top of the Globe. The alert reads: “Currently, the combined search and rescue ship capacity may well be less than would be needed to cope with even one of the small cruise ships that frequent parts of the Arctic area.”

No European countries have ever before issued a travel warning to its citizens wanting to sail on a cruise to Svalbard.

The Foreign Office cautions that air or medical evacuation could take time; search and rescue ships in the area offers just basic transport and are not capable of advanced life-support. There are uncharted waters and air temperatures can be very low even during the summer.

Operator says “safety is first”
Norwegian Hurtigruten is one of the cruise liners that sail in the Arctic, including the waters around Svalbard.

“Safety is our number one priority, and we would not run operations in these waters if safety was not ensured. This goes both for on board safety and search and rescue capabilities in the waters we sail,” says Stein Lillebo, Communication and PR Counsultat with Hurtigruten to BarentsObserver.

“Any form of travel involves some element of risk. But as a responsible operator we make substantial risk reducing efforts, such as itinerary planning, safety equipment, ship design, education and training, and navigational aids. Continuous risk analysis and concrete safety measures are more adequate than to discourage trips to the Arctic regions in general,” says Stein Lillebo.

He expects that the advice from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office will be listened to, but says Hurtigruten are confident that their safety measures exceed the expectations in the UK market also after this general advice.

“Operations in the waters we sail are regulated by both international and national laws/regulations, IMO and SOLAS as the most important internationally. In addition we operate under the Norwegian special regulations, even more strict on certain points. We operate in compliance both with international and national regulations, which are continuously reviewed and improved, says Stein Lillebo.

“There are risks”
The Governor of Svalbard does not consider the move from the British Foreign Office as a daunting alert, but says there are risks involved with voyages in the Arctic.

“There is no doubt that traveling in parts of the Arctic is more dangerous than other parts. It is also possible that different nations have different perceptions of what travel is dangerous. This warning applies to the entire Arctic and is issued for UK citizens,” says Assistant Governor of Svalbard, Lars Erik Alfheim to BarentsObserver.

“When you see the Arctic as a whole it is a sober description given by the British Foreign Office,” says Alfheim.

“The Governor may only account for our own rescue and rescue capacity. Even within the Svalbard’s territorial waters - and with the emergency services we have today - there are clear limitations in the rescue and its capacities,” says Lars Erik Alfheim.

There are several tens of Arctic voyages to Svalbard and the surrounding areas this summer. Several of the larger cruise vessels bring thousands of passengers, whereas others are smaller boats.

As the sea-ice melts due to global warming, the waters north of Svalbard and eastwards to Franz Josef’s Land and Novaya Zemlya get more accessible for cruise voyages. “If you are thinking of such a trip, please consider these factors and check the operational records and relevant experience of captains and crews operating vessels in Arctic waters,” the Foreign Office’s alert reads.