Svalbard (Russian: Grumant; ), also known as Spitsbergen, is a group of islands between the Arctic Ocean, Barents Sea, Greenland Sea, and the Norwegian Sea. The islands are directly north of and administered by Norway.
All settlements in Svalbard are located on the main island of Spitsbergen (or Vest-Spitsbergen).
The other islands of Svalbard are uninhabited and, as they are all nature reserves, generally inaccessible without special permission. The islands can be divided into two groups: the Spitsbergen group of Barentsøya, Edgeøya, Nordaustlandet and Prins Karls Forland, and the more remote islands of Bjørnøya, Hopen, Kong Karls Land and Kvitøya.
Svalbard is the northernmost tip of Europe and its settlements are the northernmost permanently inhabited spots on the planet. Located between the 76° and 81° parallels, they are far higher up north than any of Alaska and all but a few of Canada's Arctic islands; in fact, they would be permanently locked in by ice if not for the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream, and it is this comparative warmth that makes them habitable. The islands cover a total of 62,050km², the largest of which are Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandet and Edgeøya. The combined permanent population is less than 3000, nearly all of which is concentrated in the main settlements of Longyearbyen and Barentsburg on Spitsbergen.
The islands are governed by Sysselmann på Svalbard, literally if slightly awkwardly translated into English as the Governor of Svalbard; this is not a single person, but the administrative team responsible for police, fire, rescue and other public services on the islands.
The islands were alledgedly first discovered by viking explorers in the 12th Century, however the first recorded voyage here was by the Dutch in 1596 landing on the North West of Spitsbergen. This coast served as an international whaling base during the 17th and 18th centuries. Norway's sovereignty was recognized in 1905; five years later it officially took over the territory. However, the Svalbard Treaty gives "absolute equality" to other nations wishing to exploit mineral deposits, and Russia continues to maintain a significant population on the island.
Coal mining is the major economic activity on Svalbard. The treaty of 9 February 1920 gives the 41 signatories equal rights to exploit mineral deposits, subject to Norwegian regulation. Although US, UK, Dutch, and Swedish coal companies have mined in the past, the only companies still mining are Norwegian and Russian. The settlements on Svalbard are essentially company towns. The Norwegian state-owned coal company employs nearly 60% of the Norwegian population on the island, runs many of the local services, and provides most of the local infrastructure. There is also some trapping of seal, polar bear, fox, and walrus. Tourism has also become increasingly important and now powers the economy of the main settlement Longyearbyen, which has changed beyond recognition in the last 10 years.
Svalbard is almost undescribably barren, rugged and desolate. Its mountains look like giant, precipitous slag heaps: steeply piled stacks of rubble, eroded by rain with peaks jutting out at improbable angles. Higher mountains are permanently covered in snow and many valleys are filled with glaciers. There are no trees on the islands and the only visible vegetation is a brownish green moss, the color of dead grass, that sprouts patchily up the mountainsides.
Svalbard literally means "cold edge", an apt name for this northern land. The climate is Arctic, tempered by warm North Atlantic Current. Summers are cool (July average 6.1°C) and winters are cold (January average -15.8°C), but wind chill means that it usually feels colder. The North Atlantic Current flows along west and north coasts of Spitsbergen, keeping water open and navigable most of the year. The high travel season is during Svalbard's brief summer, from June to August, when it's light and not too cold outside. However, the so-called "light winter" (March-May), when there is both sunlight and snow, is also increasingly popular for winter sports.
Svalbard features the midnight sun from April 20 to August 23, although the sun itself is often hidden behind dense banks of fog. Conversely, the sun stays under the horizon during the polar night from October 26 to February 15.
Norwegian and Russian public holidays apply in the settlements, but there are a few local festivals of interest:
Getting in is expensive and time-consuming. In legal theory, citizens of the 41 signatories of the Svalbard treaty (including some unlikely countries like Afghanistan and the Dominican Republic!) need no visas or other permits to visit or even work in Svalbard. However, in practice it's difficult to arrive in Svalbard without transiting through Norway, and as Norway considers Svalbard a domestic destination, you'll need to immigrate into Norway first. In the other direction, Norway reserves the right to check the passports of incoming passengers from Svalbard.
There is one way of flying to Svalbard on the cheap: flights to Longyearbyen are considered a domestic flight like any other, so a SAS EuroBonus award ticket from anywhere in Scandinavia to Svalbard costs just 12,000 EuroBonus points. This little loophole is well known by SAS frequent flyers and award availability is quite limited, so book well in advance if planning to use this.
In the summer there is a boat service from Tromsø once a week. The journey takes 2-3 days and prices are generally at least as steep as flights. Occasional boats also operate from Murmansk (Russia) directly to Barentsburg.
There are no roads on Svalbard. Travel between islands and settlements can be done by plane or helicopter any time of year. Boats can be used in summer and snowmobiles are a popular option in winter.
Svalbard's visitors come mostly to experience Arctic nature at its rawest and most powerful. The islands feature untouched glaciers and craggy mountains, dotted with polar bears, reindeer, seals and walruses.
Svalbard is a popular staging point (at least in relative terms) for launching expeditions to the North Pole.
The currency is the Norwegian crown (NOK), even in the Russian settlements.
Svalbard is by most measures horribly expensive: Norway is an expensive country to begin with, and Svalbard slaps on a steep surcharge for the distance. Accommodation in cheap guesthouses costs on the order of 500 kr/night and sit-down meals nudge up closer to 100 NOK each, both figures you can very easily double if you want to stay in a full-service hotel and eat well. Throw in any guided activities at 500-1000 NOK per day plus souvenirs and sundries, and you'll be looking at a daily budget of 2000-3000 kr (€250-400). The only way to cut costs significantly is to camp and self-cater, preferably bringing all your supplies from the mainland.
However, Svalbard's duty-free status means that a few items are in fact cheaper than the mainland: the most popular purchases are alcohol and sports clothing. This 'cheapness' is still only relative to high Norwegian prices and visitors from, say, the US are unlikely find any great deals.
Food on Svalbard is pretty much the same as anywhere in Norway, only more expensive because it's all imported. Local specialities include seal and reindeer.
Alcohol is duty-free on Svalbard and thus cheaper than on the Norwegian mainland. If you head over to Barentsburg, Russian vodka can be outright cheap.
A popular party trick for glacier cruises is drinks served with glacier ice, purified by natural processes over thousands of years.
Citizens of Svalbard Treaty signatory countries need no permits to work on Svalbard; you can even set up your own mine if so inclined. In practice, work opportunities are rather more limited, although there is some seasonal tourist industry work available during the summer if you have the requisite skills and language abilities (Norwegian will come in handy).
The biggest threat on Svalbard is polar bears, some 500 of which inhabit the main islands at any one time. Five people have been killed by polar bears since 1973, and if travelling outside settlements you are required to carry a rifle at all times to protect yourself. They can be rented for 100 kr and up per day, no license needed, although experience in using it is very strongly advised (or, better yet, stick to guided tours).
The harsh Arctic environment also poses its own challenges, particularly in winter. Crossing glaciers and rivers can be hazardous and travelling with local guides is strongly recommended. If heading out on your own, informing the Governor of Svalbard about your route and expected duration is highly advisable. For any trips outside central region of Spitsbergen, you must notify the Governor, and may be required to purchase insurance or put up a large deposit to cover possible rescue costs.
Tap water on Svalbard is drinkable, but surface water may contain tapeworm eggs from fox faeces and should be boiled before consumption.
There are no pharmacies on Svalbard, although you can buy some non-prescription drugs in Longyearbyen, which also has a hospital for treating emergencies.
In most of Svalbard's buildings, including some hotels and shops, you are expected to take off your shoes before entering.
GSM phones work in the main towns of Svalbard. Public Internet terminals are available in Longyearbyen.
While mail from Svalbard to Norway and the outside world uses regular Norwegian stamps at regular Norwegian prices, philatelists may be interested in the Lokalpost system used for intra-Svalbard mail. Stamps, first-day covers and more are available in Longyearbyen's post office and Svalbardbutikken.WikiPedia:Svalbard