Lifestyle & Culture

Pack your mukluks: Svalbard is Norway’s visa-free, Trump-free destination for hardy expats

Here we go again. Back in 2016, newly elected President Donald Trump – in one of his typical unfiltered moments – asked staffers and members of Congress why the United States gets so many migrants and refugees from from what he calls “shit hole countries” and why the U.S. couldn’t start attracting more people from Norway.

No, really.

By coincidence, we had a post, “Norway reaching out to Americans looking for an alternative to Trump madness” about the EmigrateMe effort in Ringerike, Norway, just north of Oslo. When Trump went on that bizarre rant, our post lit up, with almost 1 million page views. Thanks, Mr. President.

Four agonizing years later for us Americans, the New York Post, Forbes and the BBC all have posts about Svalbard, a frozen archipelago above the Arctic Circle, and closer to the North Pole than Oslo. The most inviting thing about this remote, unspoiled place is that citizens of any country are welcome to settle in Svalbard without a visa as long as they have a job and a place to live, according to the BBC.

Svalbard is an international oddity: visa-free and semi-autonomous under the terms of the Svalbard Treaty. It’s the world’s most northerly permanently inhabited region. Suddenly, in the pandemic, this place makes a weird kind of sense – natural beauty, low population density, and the biggest danger is hungry polar bears. Which, unlike COVID-19, you can see and avoid.

And that Svalbard Treaty is some treaty. It makes Svalbard part of Norway, yet independent of some of its laws and with its own quirky rules.

For example:

• The 1920 treaty settled disputes over natural resources in international waters. Fourteen nations signed the original Svalbard Treaty, including Denmark, the United Kingdom, Sweden and the United States, recognizing its unique geopolitical status as a visa-free zone. Since the 1920s, the total has grown to 46 countries.

• There are taxes but only enough to support the cluster of islands. So the tax rate is substantially lower than mainland Norway, according to Wikipedia.

• All citizens and companies of all 46 signatories are allowed to become residents and to have access to Svalbard, including the right to fish, hunt or “undertake any kind of maritime, industrial, mining or trade activity.” Residents of Svalbard observe Norwegian law, “though Norwegian authority cannot discriminate against or favor any residents of any given nationality.”

• The treaty protects the environment.

• No nation can establish military bases anywhere in the Svalbard archipelago.

And who knew … this frozen tundra is a fairly popular tourist attraction with its own tourism website. A website that states, “There are three main seasons in Svalbard: Polar Summer, Northern Lights Winter and Sunny Winter. Each season has its unique charms and characteristics.”

“Sunny winter” and ” “Northern Lights winter” at 78-degrees north latitude (the North Pole is at 90 degrees) way above the Arctic Circle. Now, that’s marketing!

By the way, Svalbard reopened 15 May to travelers and will allow tourists to visit from mainland Norway starting 1 June, according to the tourism website.

Okay, the deets:

• Longyearbyen is the largest town. The second-largest town – Barentsberg – is mainly populated by Ukrainians and Russians and has a Russian consulate. The whole cluster of islands only has about 3,000 year-round inhabitants, so self-isolating here is never a problem.

• The reason this isn’t Hong Kong with polar bears is that it’s too damn cold most of the year. In the winter, temps drop to as low as minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit. Summers are mild with highs up to 70 degrees.

• About those bears … there are some places in the archipelago where you need to carry a high-powered rifle or risk becoming part of the circle of life sooner than you might have planned.

Okay, just because pretty much anyone can pick up and come here to live doesn’t mean Svalbard is going to be the next Berlin. For a hardy few, we could see this being a really fascinating experience for, say, a year. Tops.

As tourist destination, the islands will be the next big thing in the post-pandemic era, and there are a shocking number of amenities, including the most northerly brew pub in the world and 4-star hotels including a Radisson Blu Polar.

Okay, one last thing .. does this sealskin parka make me look fat?

See Dispatches’ Norway achieves here.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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