Questions or uncomfortable truth?
For more than 1,5 years we have been trying to take an active role in forming this certification - sadly without success so far. And it is heartbreaking to see this development.
In September 2021 two proposals attracted a lot of attention here in Longyearbyen - and the news spread quickly all over the world. Sad to say, the reaction wasn’t pure delight, but rather the opposite: disbelief, incomprehension, disappointment, helplessness, sometimes even shock and anger. One of the results was a Fakkeltog of local residents in November the same year.
What could cause such an uproar? We are talking about the proposals regarding extensive regulation changes to the ‘Svalbard Environmental Protection Act’ as well as new regulations for tourism, field safety and the proposal to apply the Package travel Act here in Svalbard.
The surprise was not the proposals themselves, as local working groups had delivered input and feedback for more than a year prior to the announcements, but rather how little of the input was taken into consideration. Also the Svalbard Guide Association (SGA) has been following the process very closely - since more than two years we have taken an active role in delivering input for these proposals. Yes, correct: the ministries have already received a lot of input from different working groups under the leadership of Sysselmesteren in the past. For example, you can find a summary attached to the proposal from the Ministry of Climate and Environment (nr. 7).
As mentioned, very little of that input found consideration in the proposal - which ultimately resulted in a Fakkeltog in November. So it is very understandable why people are frustrated, it takes a lot of free time (volunteer work in most cases), energy and well thought out ideas to be able to hand in constructive feedback.
One thing becomes very clear while digging your way through the two proposals with their combined strength of 180 pages - that the ministries have simply failed to undertake an impact assessment. What will happen to the local industry and residents? What are the consequences of these changes? A lot more paperwork for Sysselmesteren, that's for sure. And we also wonder: Whose job is it to do these assessments? Why was it not done?
And while we are at it, some more questions: we are all asked to send in feedback again (Deadline 01.05 - don’t forget!) - but who will guarantee that it will be heard this time after it was ignored the first time? Is it the cost efficient way of getting an impact assessment? Is it really fair to publish two proposals at the same time that count together more than 180 pages? Of laws and regulation changes? No easy read for sure. The proposal from the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of trade and industry was never published in english.
The more we read, the more we wonder: What is the reason behind all of this? Why now? Why this way? There are many good examples from all over the world on how to manage fragile nature areas, for example Galápagos Islands. Or how about involving the guides, who are out every single day? Educate rangers, who will help to protect Svalbard! Manage it, instead of overwhelming everyone with complicated regulations (which will be borderline impossible to control and enforce).
We as the Svalbard Guide Association will have to dig even deeper than this, as the regulation changes will have a major impact on our profession. We want to underline that the SGA is supporting the push for a mandatory certification for guides on Svalbard, it will be an important step forward for our profession. It is essential that guides on Svalbard are qualified and a certain quality is guaranteed. But not the way it is proposed. The certification needs to consider AND include all sorts of guiding as well as accept existing international certification. So more questions arise, and dear reader be assured we have asked and not gotten any answer, so we feel like asking again:
Why enforce a mandatory certification for all guides? Are we not qualified enough? Is there any trend towards more accidents within guided tours or regulation breaches? What is the major concern here? What needs to be improved and how? What is the government hoping to achieve? We can’t know, as we are not part of that discussion. If the certification will come into place as proposed the office of the governor will drown in bureaucratic paperwork as we estimate there might be 800-1000 or more applications to be looked through. This little undertaking will be by far more time consuming than the rifle - loan applications. And we all know how that went this year.
So for more than 1,5 years we have been trying to take an active role in forming this certification - sadly without success so far. And it is heartbreaking to see this development. Representatives of the tour operators and course providers are involved in the process, there have been several meetings in the past. Do we need to point out that they are biased and will NOT focus on the best outcome for the profession of guiding but on the best financial outcome?
So to be clear: A guide certification is being created without the input of active guides nor anyone that has experience in creating a certification? A certification that will have a major impact on a whole profession? A profession which is based on passion, the desire to teach others and the protection of nature. Ask any guide in town, we do this job because we love it, not for the money. But that is a whole different story. The point is: we care about our profession.
So we wonder, what is it that the government is so concerned about? Is it the amount of tourists? The amount of foreigners living here? The amount of tour operators that are registered on Svalbard? Tour operators that are not part of AECO or Visit Svalbard? We don't have the answer, but one thing is sure: we will not be the tool to achieve whatever political goal. This is not the right way. If you think you can solve the problems that have emerged in recent years by making it harder for the guides, you are very wrong.
The SGA will keep pushing to be involved in the process and we will not accept a certification that will be enforced without including the guides. Again, we 100% support certification, but we can’t allow that a whole profession becomes a tool for some political goals, that have nothing to do with improving the quality of guiding.
This is our profession. And be assured, we are going to defend it. We are not the problem. But we can be part of the solution. Think bigger.