A government commission has recommended strengthening the regulation of cruise ships in Norway, restricting winter sailings and clamping down on sailings to Svalbard.
Prior to the pandemic, complaints soared about the number of large cruise ships in the Norwegian fjords and at small ports along the coastline. For the last two years, Norwegian waters have largely been free of cruise ships. But the recent end to international travel restrictions has brought the future of the large vessels into focus once again.
Commission formed after serious incident
In March 2019, the Viking Sky sailed into the most treacherous stretch of Norwegian waters during a storm with 1,300 people on board. It lost power and drifted dangerously close to shore, requiring emergency services to organize an airlift rescue operation.
The incident caused outrage within Norway and resulted in the ministry of justice forming a commission to review the incident and make recommendations.
Stricter cruise regulation required
Led by Kjerstin Askholt, a career police officer and former governor of Svalbard, the commission’s findings were presented last week.
The commission found that the Viking Sky incident showed how Norway’s search and rescue operations are not dimensioned to handle mass evacuations of large vessels with thousands of people on board.
“An increase in cruise traffic also increases the probability that accidents will happen,” said Askholt, who recommended stricter regulation of cruise traffic.
Winter cruises are higher risk
Despite the lack of light, winter cruises in Norway remain popular due to the chance of seeing the northern lights.
Askholt pointed out how common it is for Norway to close mountain roads in severe winter weather. “Perhaps we should also close parts of the coast when the weather is too bad,” she said.
According to NRK, the commission made 66 recommendations to reduce the risk of accidents. These included restricting vessels more than 150 meters long from sailing in severe winter weather, based on wind strength and the height of waves.
Changes ahead for Svalbard cruises
New regulations have already been proposed to limit the environmental impact of cruise traffic in the fragile Arctic ecosystem around Svalbard.
Because emergency preparedness becomes more difficult the farther north cruise ships sail, the commission’s report recommended several more restrictions, including a capacity limit of no more than 750 on cruise ships sailing in Svalbard waters.
The recommendations are likely to prove controversial among the travel industry and the 2,500 local residents on Svalbard. As coal mining has all but disappeared, the main settlement Longyearbyen largely relies on tourism to drive its economy. Cruise ships fueled by heavy bunker oil have been banned from Svalbard since the turn of the year.
A “solid base” for future work
Despite the importance of the tourism industry, Norway has a track record of introducing restrictions on cruise ships. The country previously adopted a resolution to only allow zero-emission cruise ships and ferries to sail in its UNESCO World Heritage listed fjords (Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord) by the mid-2020s.
How many of the commission’s recommendations are introduced remains to be seen. “I am aware that we must have a solid preparedness both at sea and on land. This analysis gives us a solid knowledge base for developing emergency preparedness further, said Norway’s minister of justice and emergency preparedness Emilie Enger Mehl, when receiving the 164-page report.