1,300 kilometers from the North Pole, Svalbard (or Spitsbergen), is polar adventure within reach of a simple scheduled flight.

Breathtaking wild immensities, polar bears, midnight sun or aurora borealis depending on the season…

But, in a region that is warming three times faster than the planet, it is also, like the canary in the mine, a worrying showcase of climate change.

Over the years, the coal seams, the historical raison d’etre of human presence in these latitudes, have almost all closed and tourism has become, along with scientific research, one of the main pillars and employers of the local economy.

“It is always difficult to defend because we know that tourism raises challenges in all the places that people visit but also from a climatic point of view”, admits Ronny Brunvoll, director of Visit Svalbard, the association tourism professionals.

“But we can’t prevent people from traveling, from visiting each other, so we have to find solutions,” he adds.

On the archipelago where 65% of the spaces are protected, the approximately 140,000 annual visitors (pre-Covid figures) must, like the 3,000 inhabitants, comply with strict rules: prohibition of disturbing wildlife – tracking down a bear polar is liable to a large fine– or to pick flowers on these lands where vegetation is scarce…

“We are really facing nature in fact, we don’t have many spaces like that anymore”, testifies Frédérique Barraja, a French photographer met at the airport.

“It attracts like any rare place. Afterwards, they remain fragile, so you have to visit them in a respectful way”.

Ultra polluting, heavy fuel oil, commonly used by large cruise ships, has been banned from the waters of the archipelago since the beginning of the year, even before the entry into force of its progressive ban throughout the whole of the Arctic from 2024.

Undoubtedly another nail in the coffin for these disparaged behemoths of the seas, which sometimes disembark up to 5,000 passengers in Longyearbyen, the modest capital of the archipelago whose infrastructures, from roads to toilets, are not sized for such crowds.

– Electric is fantastic –

In a tourism sector geared towards a rather exclusive clientele, some players are ahead of or go beyond regulations, such as Hurtigruten, which has set itself the ambition of being “the most ecological tour operator in the world”.

Sustainability “shouldn’t be a competitive advantage,” says a senior group manager, Henrik Lund. “It should just be an entry ticket to be able to operate.”

Having banned disposable plastic in 2018, the tour operator now offers electric snowmobile rides and, more recently, sea excursions aboard a small innovative diesel-electric hybrid boat, the Kvitbjørn (“white bear” in Norwegian).

“On idyllic exploration sites, we go all-electric, we become silent and we emit no combustion fumes”, boasts Johan Inden, president of the marine division of the engine manufacturer Volvo Penta.

A small problem however: in Svalbard, electricity still comes from a coal-fired power station, a source of fossil energy which contributes to global warming.

“Electrification makes sense regardless of the energy source,” reassures Christian Eriksen, an official of the Norwegian environmental NGO Bellona.

Whether it comes from “dirty” or “clean” sources, the electric “allows anyway to reduce emissions”, he underlines, citing a study on electric cars concluding in this direction.

But “this reduction will be significantly greater when the coal-fired power plant is replaced”.

A day that will not be long in coming: Longyearbyen wants to close its polluting power station by the fall of 2023, put the package on renewable energies and reduce its emissions by 80% by 2030.

But “we can do what we can locally, including emissions from snowmobiles or cars, we must recognize that the real big problem is transport to and from Svalbard both for tourism and for us locals , who live here,” says Brunvoll.

“In Longyearbyen, we have an insane per capita climate footprint.”