The world's most northerly town is full of surprises

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MICHELE SOLOMI
  • Photo by Michele Solomi

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The change from company town to the progressive community of modern Longyearbyen did not begin until the nineteen-seventies when the Norwegian government took over company shares and the management of the town. Families were encouraged, and in 1975 the new airport opened up year-round communication with the outside world. Until 1990 mining continued to dominate the local economy but most of the mines have since been closed and Longyearbyen has developed into a well-rounded community with a variety of industries related to tourism, scientific research, and higher education. Its 2,000 residents now have access to a modern hospital, primary and secondary schools and a branch of Tromso University. Recreational facilities include a sports centre with a swimming pool, a cultural centre and a cinema. Tourists have a choice of several hotels and museums as well as a selection of local land- and water-based tours. Several research centres, including the NASA facility at Ny-Alesund, the Russian facility at Barentsburg, as well as the Global Seed Vault are all based in the Longyearbyen area.

After checking in at our hotel we spent the rest of the day exploring the town on foot and by local bus. Longyearbyen, Ny-Alesund and nearby Barentsburg each has a road system but they do not connect with each other or any other communities. Before the mines were closed coal was transported by aerial tramway to the port in Longyearbyen. Now abandoned, the massive timber supports of this vast transport system still form a prominent part of the landscape and the town itself still retains many features of its coal-mining past. The bronze statue of a miner in the town square commemorates the town's gritty past, and the neat rows of barracks, though now converted to family apartments, are a reminder of its days as a company town when everything was planned, built, and owned by SNSK.

We had lunch in the Svalbar, a small café/bar with a large deck where the locals gather for a pint or two, and a place to soak up the summer sun. The young woman who served us had an accent I couldn't identify. "Where are you from," I asked, "I'm from Romania," she answered proudly. Like scores of other young people now living in Longyearbyen she has come here because no visa or entry permit is required. The 1920 Svalbard Treaty gave Norway full sovereignty over the archipelago but the citizens of all forty signatory nations were given the same rights and obligations as those of Norway. But, though the wages are high, jobs and accommodation are scarce. Almost all housing is owned by the employers and rented to its employees. Unlike mainland Norway there is no social welfare. Those who can't support themselves can be rejected by the governor.

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