Arctic Norway’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 Kvitbjørn (
The Kvitbjørn ("Polar Bear" in Norwegian), a hybrid tourist boat off the Svalbard archipelago. Photo: Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP

The Svalbard archipelago, located 1,300 kilometres 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 travelling. 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 places remain fragile, so you have to be respectful when you visit them.”

Ultra-polluting heavy fuel, commonly used by large cruise ships, has been banned in the archipelago since the start of the year, ahead of a ban to be progressively implemented across the Arctic as of 2024.

The ban may be another nail in the coffin for the controversial cruise ships that sail into the region.

The biggest of the behemoths can drop off up to 5,000 passengers in Longyearbyen, the archipelago’s modest main town whose infrastructure, such as roads and toilets, is not designed to accommodate such large crowds.

With tourism here already attracting a rather exclusive clientele, some operators are going further than regulations require, such as Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten which aims to become “the most environmental tour operator in the world”.

Sustainability “shouldn’t be a competitive advantage”, said a senior executive with the group, Henrik Lund. “It should just give a right to play.” 

The company banned single-use plastics back in 2018, and now offers outings on electric snowmobiles.

It also recently launched excursions on board a small cutting-edge hybrid vessel, the Kvitbjørn (Polar Bear, in Norwegian), combining a diesel motor and electric batteries. 

“In the idyllic exploration areas, we go full electric. We go silent and we don’t have any combustion fumes,” said Johan Inden, head of marine engine maker Volvo Penta.

But electrification efforts in the archipelago are currently hobbled by the fact that electricity comes from a coal plant — a fossil energy source that contributes to global warming.

“Electrification makes sense, regardless of the energy source,” insisted Christian Eriksen of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona.

Regardless of whether it comes from “dirty” or “clean” sources, electricity “makes it possible either way to reduce emissions,” Eriksen said, citing a study on electric cars that came to the same conclusion.

Longyearbyen plans to close the plant by the autumn of 2023, invest in renewable energies and reduce its emissions by 80 percent by 2030.

But Brunvoll, the head of the tourism board, noted the main problem is travel.

“Even when addressing the things we can do locally, like the emissions from snowmobiles or cars, we must still acknowledge that the really big problem is the transport to and from Svalbard, both in tourism but also for us locals,” he said.

“We have a climate footprint per capita in Longyearbyen that is insane.”

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Trolltunga: What you need to know about Norway’s iconic rock formation

Planning on tackling Trolltunga? Before you start packing your bags and mapping out your journey, there are a few things you'll need to know to help get you to the top of one of Norway's most famous hikes.  

Trolltunga: What you need to know about Norway's iconic rock formation

Trolltunga is one of Norway’s most beloved and picturesque rock formations. But, getting to the top is far easier said than done, as it’ll take between 8 to 12 hours to reach the summit. 

With such a long journey to the top, it’s more than worth taking the time to learn a few things that could make your journey that much easier, even if you’re relishing the challenge of a 28-kilometre round trip. 

For those who didn’t know already, Trolltunga is found in Ullensvang Municipality in Vestland county. The closest village to the site is Odda. 

When is it a good time to tackle Trolltunga? 

The hiking season for Trolltunga is from the beginning of June until the end of September. Throughout the rest of the years, only guided hikes are available. 

As the journey can stretch between 8 to 12 hours, depending on one’s fitness, pace, how often they stop, and experience they have, starting earlier is recommended. 

VisitNorway recommends that hikes in September start before 8am due to the shorter days. However, hikers can begin their trip in June and July after 8am. 

A bad time to attempt the trip is if strong winds, heavy rain or fog is forecasted. You can check the forecast for Trolltunga here

Proper equipment is important

The iconic cliff that makes Trolltunga so distinctive is 1,180 metres above sea level, and the journey has an ascent of 800 metres or so if you begin from the main trail top, P2. 

Given the lofty heights and ascent, it’s worth making sure you have plenty of layers, as it is likely much colder at the top than at the bottom. One big warm jacket won’t cut it as you’ll be too warm heading back down. 

Good shoes are also a prerequisite. While most of the journey takes place on a trail, you’ll want good ankle support in case you fall, and even in June, areas higher up can be covered with snow and ice. 

As the weather can change quickly up in the mountains, a raincoat should also be among your equipment. 

Consider taking a shuttle bus as parking is limited and expensive

Parking can cost an absolute fortune at Trolltunga, and there are limited spaces. There are three places people can leave their vehicles: the Tyssedal, Skjeggedal and Mågelitopp parking lots. If you choose to opt for parking, your location could affect your journey’s difficulty.

Tyssedal or P1 has 220 spots. Parking there starts from 300 kroner for one day, with a journey time of 15 hours. The most popular starting point is the Skjeggedal, or P2, parking lot, which charges 500 kroner per day. This location has a journey time of 8-12 hours and 180 spaces. 

Then finally, Mågelitopp has to be pre-booked and costs 600 kroner per day. Although it only has 30 parking spaces. If you start from here, you can cut your journey by up to 3 hours. 

Shuttle busses between Odda, P1 Tyssedal and P2 Skjeggedal are run between May 13th and September 26th. 

Shuttle prices will cost 300 kroner for a return, but it saves you the hassle of finding a space. 

You can camp on Trolltunga

If you don’t want to rush, and would rather spread your journey across two days, then it is possible to camp on Trolltunga if you wish to. 

This is due to the Norwegian concept of allemannsrettenthe right to public access. This right is protected by the Outdoor Recreation Act (1957). 

Essentially this gives the public the right to travel or camp anywhere they like, regardless of who owns the land. 

However, there are still some ground rules, written and unwritten, you will need to be aware of. 

Tents should be pitched at one of the preferred sites to minimise the impact on the local environment. Additionally, you’ll need to be downhill from the trails and away from streams and lakes. There will be signs pointing out where camping is prohibited. People will need to pitch their tent on bare rock where possible too. 

No campfires are allowed between April 15th and September 15th. For more info on camping on Trolltunga specifically, click here

READ ALSO: Can I camp anywhere I want in Norway? 

Where to get the best picture

Let’s face it: If you go on a 12-hour hike to one of the most famous peaks in Norway, you’ll want to get a decent picture. 

If you are alone, there will typically always be a willing stranger prepared to take a few snaps of you, with you taking a few of them in return. 

To get a picture of yourself on the famous cliff with it protruding outwards onto the lake, you’ll need to have a second person with you. 

A cliff at the top of the hike gives a full view of the rock protruding outwards. This is also a decent spot to take one of you with the cliff in the background. 

You can see an example of how pictures from this angle look below. 

A hiker atop Trolltunga.

The Local Norway’s editor, Frazer Norwell, at the top of Trolltunga in 2018. To get pictures like this you’ll need to have someone snap shot from a side-on angle on one on the surrounding cliffs. Photo: Frazer Norwell.
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A post shared by Trolltunga Active (@trolltungaactive)

Expect queues 

The popularity of Trolltunga has increased exponentially over the past ten years. The number of hikers who make the trip has shot up from a few thousand annually to 80,000 each year. 

This means you can expect plenty of hikers on your journey up, and typically there will be a small queue to step foot on the cliff face. For that reason, hikers are advised not to strike more than two poses on the cliff to keep the queue moving. 

If you want to take more pictures, you can always rejoin the queue to take more.