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Svalbard’s Russian Coal Town Tries Its Hand at Tourism

Russia’s Arctic settlement of Barentsburg has long depended on coal production. But tourism now supports a growing share of the economy, says Sergey Shirokiy, manager of Arctic Travel Company Grumant.

Written by Randall Hyman Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A statue of Lenin presides over the center of the Russian settlement of Barentsburg in Svalbard.© Randall Hyman

Russia has maintained a foothold in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago for centuries since its discovery by Willem Barentsz in 1593 and the subsequent establishment of Dutch, English and Danish-Norwegian whaling stations in the early 1600s. Arctic Russian seafaring traders known as Pomors referred to Svalbard as “Grumant,” a corruption of Greenland, the mistaken British name for the main island. In the early 1900s, as whaling collapsed and coal became the black gold of the north, mining emerged as Svalbard’s chief activity. Aside from a seasonal international research base, only two permanently inhabited towns are left, one Russian and the other Norwegian. By the terms of the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, signatories ceded sovereignty to Norway while reserving the right of settlement and exploitation of natural resources.

With the modern crash of coal prices, Norway has suspended most mining and turned to tourism and scientific research in the Norwegian town of Longyearbyen. Russia has not followed suit in Barentsburg. There, Moscow continues to subsidize coal mining for strategic geopolitical reasons while fostering a fledgling tourism company, Arctic Travel Company Grumant, which depends heavily on the annual peak of tourists in March and April.

This past April, a serious accident shook the young company to its core. Six Russians on a snowmobile expedition with Grumant fell through the ice while crossing a frozen fjord on the way back from Pyramiden, an abandoned Soviet-era coal mining town. One tourist and a guide were pulled from the water and airlifted to the Norwegian mainland. The tourist survived, but, tragically, the guide succumbed to the after-effects of severe shock and extended exposure on May 15. Last week, we spoke with Grumant’s tourism manager Sergey Shirokiy to discuss Barentburg’s tourism prospects.

Tourists ride snowmobiles out of Barentsburg, Svalbard amid snow and ice in April. (© Randall Hyman)

Arctic Deeply: What percentage of your guests are Russian as opposed to “foreign?”

Sergey Shirokiy: Last year we had almost 18,000 guests, and mostly they were foreigners. There was not a huge percentage of Russians, and this year we had close to a thousand Russian guests. The difference is that foreign guests usually come to have lunch or just to stay overnight. Russian guests come for one-week tours, so they spend much more time here in Barentsburg and different locations.

Arctic Deeply: Why would someone use Grumant instead of one of the Norwegian tour operators?

Shirokiy: Because it’s different. You can visit Russia without leaving Norway. When you come to Barentsburg, you are in Russia, with Russian culture and traditions. All of our guides are English-speaking and provide the same service as Norwegian guides, but with a different point of view or much more information about history. We have a Pomors museum in the Soviet General Consulate, which is from 1952, and the Red Bear restaurant and pub. And we also have the Pomors Hostel, and have finally opened a handicraft center where our guides and locals make souvenirs. We also have a husky farm with 20 dogs and are training them for next winter when we will start offering sled-dog tours around Barentsburg.

Arctic Deeply: What would you say is the Russian experience in Svalbard, historically and at present?

Shirokiy: We use the phrase that we are Little Russia on Svalbard. We have our traditions of welcoming guests, and now we are trying to offer the best services connected to Russian culture, like Pomor cuisine, Russian cuisine and our own local beer. We also offer something different, like tours to the mine, which started in March. It’s the only working mine in the world where you can go on a tour and meet miners on their way to work and see the coal dust. It’s dirty, but it’s because it’s working. It’s not a tourist destination.

Miners follow coal car rails toward a mine shaft in Barentsburg, Svalbard. (© Randall Hyman)

Arctic Deeply: What about visiting Pyramiden (a frozen-in-time, abandoned Soviet-era coal town over 100 kilometers away by snowmobile)?

Shirokiy: The hotel is open, with a bar, a restaurant and a gift shop, and we have five people as permanent staff. More and more people come and stay there, and ferry boats also visit. In a couple of weeks we will have the first, I would say, huge for us, cruise ship, with almost 800 passengers.

Arctic Deeply: Has your overall guest load increased?

Shirokiy: This winter season was a bit strange due to the weather conditions. March and April are usually the best time to be in Barentsburg. It’s the best time for snowmobiles, but this year, weather in March was awful, with a lot of wind and snow, so not so many guests came to Barentsburg to visit us in March. I would say that we are staying at the same amount of guests as last year.

Arctic Deeply: Was that the same for Longyearbyen?

Shirokiy: I’m not sure about Longyearbyen. It’s a bit easier for them because they have an airport, and the guests were still coming so they could make short trips around. For us to have Norwegian guests, it’s a long way, and if there are heavy winds they are not coming.

Arctic Deeply: How do your guests come?

Shirokiy: During wintertime it’s only by snowmobiles. In summertime it’s ferry boats. This year, the first boat from Longyearbyen came on March 1. It’s the earliest-ever opening of navigation for ferries. The normal time is May 1, so this was two months early, with no sea ice at all on the way from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg. Our own fjord, Gronfjord, was totally free this year, the second winter in a row.

Arctic Deeply: What is the general feeling about climate change among Russians?

Shirokiy: Here on Svalbard, of course everyone can see the changes in nature. But what can we do? We’re trying to reduce the amount of coal used. During the last couple of years, we covered all of the houses with special panels to make them warmer inside. We reduced the amount of coal used from 39,000 tons per year to 30,000 tons. We are now mining 120,000 tons of coal per year. It’s not high-quality, 4 percent sulfur, but we export 90,000 tons to Europe. I’m not sure that we could mine less than this and still keep the mine in working condition.

Arctic Deeply: Does the Russian government subsidize tourism like it does coal?

Shirokiy: No, tourism is not subsidized at all, or at least not the last two years. From 2016, we have been profitable. In 2016 our revenue was 160 million rubles ($2.8 million), and in 2015 it was 100 million rubles ($1.75 million). The whole reconstruction of our swimming pool was paid for with the income we received from tourism. Tourism has been growing since 2013. It is the second main [economic] activity in Barentsburg.

Arctic Deeply: Are there fewer coal miners now and more tourism employees in Barentsburg?

Shirokiy: I would say that it’s totally the same. Now we have almost 400 people in Barentsburg. Two hundred seventy of them are working directly for the mine, not only the miners, but also all the other positions and jobs. And we have 70 kids in Barentsburg, and nearly 50 people in the tourism branch working as guides and in our souvenir shops, restaurants, hostel, hotels and bars.

Arctic Deeply: If you have tourism dollars, why do you need coal?

Shirokiy: Most of our locals work for the mine, so we cannot just replace positions in coal mining with tourism. It’s a long-term activity with a long history here. In Barentsburg, we are trying not only to develop it as a tourist destination, but also to make it much more comfortable for locals so they feel better living here, and not like they’ve just been abandoned or forgotten somewhere in the Arctic.

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