Svalbard’s experience – for Russian Arctic?

Svalbard had more than 80.000 tourists in 2012, Franz Josef Land had 1040. Photo: Andrey Shalyov

The northernmost Russian national park wants to open its territories for more tourists. Could Norwegian experience be useful?


The National park “Russian Arctic” was designated in 2009 and is one of two protected territories in the Russian sector of the Arctic. Its area covers the northern part of Novaya Zemlya archipelago with over 630 thousand hectares of lands and almost 800 thousand of marine space. The Park is also managing the state wildlife sanctuary (zakaznik) on over 190 islands of Franz Josef Land with a total area of 4,2 million of hectares of lands.

The main mission of the National Park is the preservation of the unique nature and wildlife of the Arctic archipelagos as well as protection of  objects of cultural and historical value. The territories of the Russian Arctic still keep traces of expeditions of eight countries: Austria-Hungary, Netherlands, Great Britain, Norway, USA, Italy, Russia and Germany including those of Willem Barents, Georgy Sedov, Frederic Jackson and Fridtjof Nansen.

From 2010 the Park became the main operator of a large-scale federal program on cleaning the Arctic islands from garbage inherited from the Soviet period of intensive economic and military activity.


Director of the “Russian Arctic” national Park Roman Ershov wants more visitors to come to the north. Photo: Andrey Shalyov

More people want Arctic holidays
Tourism development is not the main objective of the National Park although it gets some sufficient profit from this activity. Each visitor brings almost €50 into the budget of the park and this money can be invested in environmental activities and improvement of infrastructure.  But the researchers cannot ignore the quickly growing interest in the funs of exotic travels and adventures.

During the last year the preserve had 1040 visitors which is almost 20% more than in 2011. Most of the tourists come to the Russian Arctic from foreign countries – the number of Russian visitors does not exceed 10% of the total number. The tourist department of the National Park informs BarentsObserver that the biggest group of tourists came here from China – 215 visitors. The other tourists came from USA (86 visitors), Switzerland (63) and even from Australia (24). The National Park is an affiliate member of the Association of the Arctic Expedition Operators (AECO).

High costs hamper tourism boom to Russian Arctic
Nevertheless, experts do not foresee that the number of tourists to the Russian Arctic will grow very fast in the nearest future. The main tour operators have recently informed the Park that they were not able to collect enough number of tourists for cruise expeditions to Franz Jozef Land for the season of 2013. This is probably caused by the world economic crisis, taking into consideration that the Arctic adventures are still a fun for very prosperous people. The cost of a cruise tour starts from $10.000. The high cost of the Arctic tours is obviously explained by the necessity to use expensive ice-class vessels and strict rules demanding that the tourist groups should be guided by a team of inspectors and security personnel defending the visitors from unexpected threats of Arctic wildlife.

The high costs are also caused by some peculiarities of Russian reality; foreign vessels have to call one of the mainland Russian ports of Murmansk or Arkhangelsk in order to cross the border and to make necessary customs formalities. Director of the National Park Roman Ershov optimistically hopes that in the future border and customs control points could be opened on one of the islands of Franz Jozef Land. This would make Arctic travel much cheaper. But so far this seems almost unlikely because such a decision will need to go through a number of bureaucratic structures in Moscow.

Can Russia learn Arctic tourism from Norway?
Nevertheless the managers and researchers of the National Park are looking forward to make their own strategy of tourism development based on a balance of nature preserve objectives, business interests of the tour operators and national security regulations. They clearly understand that tourist’s flows bring not only economic profits but also real threats to the vulnerable Arctic nature and cultural and historical artifacts. In the process of creating this strategy the National Park accumulates international experience and first of all the experience of nearest Arctic country to Russia – Norway.


Norwegian and Russian participants in the seminar gathered outside the national park’s office in Arkhangelsk. Photo: Marina Menshikova

Contacts between Russian Arctic researchers and their Norwegian partners have been facilitated by the Norwegian-Russian program of environmental cooperation. Some of the important actors in this cooperation last week gathered in the National Park’s office in Arkhangelsk to discuss environmental threats and challenges connected to tourism in the Arctic.

The Norwegian delegation that took part in the seminar was rather representative.  The Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, AECO, the Norwegian Polar Institute, the Norwegian Directorate for Nature Management, Bioforsk Svanhovd and tourists companies presented their competent points of view on how tourism can be developed in the Arctic with minimum threat to vulnerable ecosystems and cultural heritage.

Russian researchers are thoroughly studying the important experience of Svalbard, which was presented by Elin Lien, adviser of the Governor of Svalbard. Svalbard’s experience cannot of course be copied on Franz Jozef Land. The two territories are similar in many aspects like climate and weather conditions, wildlife, monuments of historical heritage and common environmental threats. But Franz Jozef Land will hardly get such a settlement like Longyebyen and the archipelago will never be regulated by any international treaty.

Wildlife on Franz Jozef Land is almost untouched in comparison with Svalbard, which can be a great advantage when it comes to attract visitors. Norwegian experience is definitely very valuable for the Russian Arctic National Park but it presents only one – although successful, way of tourism development in the Arctic and it will be critically considered when Russians finally will formulate their own concept of Arctic tourism development.

Joint expeditions to Svalbard and Franz Josef Land
During the seminar the Norwegian and Russian partners agreed to continue the dialogue and to work out more concrete projects that can bring value for both sides. The managers of the Russian Arctic want to make a visit to Svalbard to study nature management of this territory. It was also suggested to arrange a joint Russian-Norwegian research expedition to Franz Josef Land in order to use Norwegian methods of study of permissible load on the environment.