AECO statement regarding potential Svalbard Tourism Regulations
On December 9, 2019, the Norwegian Government issued a press release stating that the Norwegian Government is considering a generalized ban on heavy fuel oil (HFO), size limitation on passengers ships in Svalbard and other measures to manage growing tourism.
As an industry association dedicated to managing responsible, environmentally friendly and safe tourism in the Arctic and strive to set the highest possible operating standards, AECO welcomes regulations that support this goal. AECO believes that an organized and well-managed travel industry is the best way to ensure that Arctic tourism is carried out with the utmost consideration for the vulnerable, natural environment, local cultures and cultural remains, as well as the challenging safety hazards at sea and on land.
AECO has long been a supporter of a generalized ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil (HFO) in Svalbard and the Arctic. AECO was an early signatory of the Arctic Commitment which calls for a phase-out of heavy fuel oil (HFO) from Arctic shipping. The current practice among the association’s members is to refrain from using HFO when sailing in the Arctic. This practice was formalized as a mandatory guideline when AECO’s Annual Meeting implemented a the self-imposed ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil (HFO) by AECO members operating in the Arctic. This ban applies to all AECO members.
According to Executive Director Frigg Jørgensen, banning HFO has broad support among the association’s members.
“AECO represents the great majority of operators that offer expedition cruising in the Arctic. By formalizing this ban, the expedition cruise industry is sending a message to decision-makers that it is time to act to protect the Arctic from the risk of HFO pollution. We welcome the proposal from the Norwegian government to introduce a generalized ban on heavy fuel oil (HFO) in Svalbard. We hope that other Arctic nations and the International Maritime Organization will follow Norway’s lead,” says Jørgensen.
Size limitation on ships
When it comes to size limitation on ships, Frigg Jørgensen states that the association’s core membership is the Arctic expedition cruise segment. As such, AECO’s members generally operate small and medium sized vessels carrying up to 500 passengers, with the average passenger capacity ranging from 150 to 200 passengers.
“We see many benefits of using relatively small vessels. The ships are less reliant on port infrastructure and are able to visit remote sites in a sustainable manner. Smaller passenger groups can also be more manageable for Arctic communities receiving them as visitors. In addition, a recent study from Svalbard shows that the expedition cruise vessels on average contribute 5.2 times more in local income per passenger compared to conventional cruise tourism. From a search and rescue perspective smaller vessels may also be easier to manage. In other words, there may be some benefits to favoring small vessels” says Jørgensen. “However, tourism is a major industry in Svalbard and the local community is depending on income from the cruise tourism in general. Before any regulations are enforced, the impact this may have on local business and communities should be researched, and local as well as industry stakeholders should be consulted.”
Other measures to manage growing tourism
According to the Government’s press release, the Government will also consider additional measures to protect wildlife, nature and cultural heritage, which may include stricter rules about polar bear disturbance, and landings in fragile areas.
AECO has developed and imposed a number of guidelines and standards to ensure responsible and considerate operations. These guidelines and standards are mandatory for all AECO members and come in addition to legal requirements. This includes guidelines for observation of polar bears and other wildlife, biosecurity and operational guidelines dealing with safety and preparedness. It also includes site-specific guidelines that provide detailed instructions on how to carry out safe landings without disturbing local wildlife, natural features and cultural heritage. Site-specific guidelines have been made a legal requirement for visiting certain landing sites. AECO is in support of making site-specific guidelines for ship landings a legal requirement in nine additional sites proposed by the government in the management plan for West-Spitsbergen national park.
AECO’s guidelines are mandatory for all AECO members, but operators that are not members of the association are not required to follow these strict guidelines. AECO’s experience from Svalbard shows that unorganized operators can represent an environmental and safety risk because they are held to lower operational standards.
The same applies to competence requirements. AECO requires that staff working for AECO members complete and pass an online assessment about legal framework, guidelines and considerate behavior. AECO has also enforced an observer scheme and members of AECO must carry an observer that will help ensure compliance with legal framework, guidelines and standards.
These are examples of other measures that the industry has put in place. AECO believes that Svalbard would benefit if more operators were held to the same high standards as those that the expedition cruise industry has imposed on itself through the AECO guidelines. AECO would welcome measures related to competence requirements for guides.
Search and rescue
Search and rescue capacity may also be a concern associated with larger vessels.
Safety and marine preparedness are priorities for the Arctic expedition cruise industry. The great majority of operators in this segment are part of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) and many efforts to enhance preparedness are channeled through this organization. Cross-sector dialogue can contribute to lower risks and a better joint understanding of capabilities and procedures and help both operators and SAR responders to develop best practices that enable them to work well together in preparing for and responding to marine incidents.
Since its establishment in 2003, AECO has been forum for dialogue and collaboration between the industry, search and rescue (SAR) entities and relevant authorities. The goal of this collaboration is not only to lower risks and strengthen preparedness in the expedition cruise sector, but also focus on how the industry can be an asset in SAR operations and contribute to enhanced marine preparedness in the Arctic.
Passenger vessels can represent a very valuable asset in Arctic SAR operations. Expedition cruise ships sail to remote areas of the Arctic during the summer season and will therefore often be one of the nearest available resources if another vessel or even a local community experiences difficulty and need assistance. In such cases, the expedition cruise ships can act as a vessel of opportunity to the vessel in distress. Since the Arctic is characterized by long distances and limited search and rescue capabilities, vessels of opportunity can be an invaluable asset in SAR operations in the Arctic. In many cases, a vessel of opportunity will be able to reach a vessel in distress long before search and rescue vessels or other assistance can arrive on site.