Norwegian cruises to Arctic Russia cancelled due to low ice class: Murmansk minister

Murmansk’s 206-meter-long pier was built to receive foreign cruise ships. Hurtigruten was set to count for four of the eight port calls by foreign passenger ships in 2019. (Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer)
Meanwhile, a competing cruise liner founded by a Russian business man sails the same waters with a vessel holding lower ice class.

“The ship’s ice class does not correspond to the ice situation that developed this season near the archipelago of Franz Josef Land,” says Dmitry Filippov, Regional Minister of Industry and Enterprise Development in Murmansk Oblast.

Filippov was interviewed by the regional news-online Severpost.

Murmansk was supposed to be the entry and exit port to Russia for Hurtigruten’s explorer ship MS Spitsbergen on two voyages between Tromsø and Franz Josef Land this August and September.

Last week, the Norwegian based cruise liner was informed that the long-timed planned – and highly profiled – tours to the Russian Arctic did not get permission from Russian authorities.

The now cancelled voyages counted for half of all port calls by foreign cruise ships to Murmansk this year. Murmansk authorities have invested tens of millions of rubles in a new pier and were looking forward to establishing itself as the gateway to the Russian Arctic for a fast-growing fleet of expedition ships sailing north.

Last year, Murmansk was included on Russia’s exclusive list of ports allowing for 72-hours visa freedom by foreigners arriving on ferries or cruise ships.

Filippov says safety of people is coming first.

“Our Norwegian partners did not take this weather factor into account,” he said pointing to more severe ice conditions around Franz Josef Land this year than normal.

Not a problem for competitor

Sea ice, however, has not stopped Hurtigruten’s competitor Poseidon Expeditions to sail in the waters of Franz Josef Land.

Poseidon’s expedition cruise ship Sea Spirit is Thursday returning back to Longyearbyen on Svalbard after one of several two-weeks voyages to Franz Josef Land this summer.

While Hurtigruten’s MS Spitsbergen holds ice-class 1C, the 18 years older Sea Spirit holds the lower ice class 1D.

MS Spitsbergen was updated and refurbished in 2009 and Sea Spirit in 2010.

According to Dmitry Filippov, the sailing permit to Hurtigruten was disapproved by Rosmorrechflot, Russia’s Federal Agency for Maritime and River Transportation.

This is the same agency that founder of Poseidon Expeditions, Russian businessman Nikolai Saveliev, was working for in the period 2003 to 2009, according to his CV posed on the Arctic, a Russian portal where Seveliev is listed as a contributing expert.

Since 2009, Seveliev has been managing partner and member of the board of directors at Poseidon Expeditions.

“Exploring Franz Josef Land aboard a cruise vessel like the Sea Spirit is the new frontier in polar expedition cruising,” Steve Wellmeier, Managing Director at Poseidon Expeditions told the Barents Observer in 2017.

With nearly 20 new expeditions ships designed for Arctic waters currently under construction, there will be a lot of competition in this exclusive and high-end, high-paid market.

The ice mapping service of Russia’s Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring for August 20th shows ice free waters for the western islands of Franz Josef Land. North and south of the eastern islands, there are some drift-ice while there are more solid ice northeast and southeast of the archipelago.

Hurtigruten ‘surprised’
Hurtigruten’s MS Roald Amundsen cruise ship arrives at Tromsoe, northern Norway on July 3, 2019. (Rune Stoltz Bertinussen/AFP/Getty Images)

Head of Communication with Hurtigruten, Anne Marit Bjørnflaten, says to the Barents Observer that the sailing ban came as a big surprise.

“Despite the fact that MS Spitsbergen meets the requirements of the Polar Code and has permission to sail in these areas of the Arctic, Russian authorities in the last minute unexpectedly denied us,” she says.

“Our dialogue with Russian authorities has been good for a long time,” Bjørnflaten tells. “Russia has during several years signaled that they will facilitate for increased cruise traffic in general, and for Hurtigruten especially, in Russian northern waters.”

Bjørnflaten says Hurtigruten was also informed about Russian military exercise activities in the areas of Franz Josef Land at the same time as the planned voyages.

According to Dmitry Filippov, the military objected the second tour, scheduled for September.

“That issue we could meet the military to resolve, but unfortunately, the low ice class of the ship cannot be bypassed,” the Murmansk Minister said in the interview with Severpost.

He also told Hurtigruten was offered an alternative route. Instead of sailing to the high Arctic, it was proposed to sail Murmansk – Solovki – Arkhangelsk.

Anne Marit Bjørnflaten says dialogue with Russian authorities continues in regards to future sailings.

Hurtigruten has itineraries for two similar voyages to Franz Josef Land via Murmansk in August and September 2020.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Russia canceled polar cruise ship leases, Canadian company says, CBC News

Finland: Giant cruise ships bringing tourists in record numbers to Helsinki, Yle News

Iceland: Arctic tourism in the age of Instagram, Eye on the Arctic special report

Norway: Antarctic-to-Arctic ultra-luxury cruise announced for 2022, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Luxury cruise ship leaves Alaska toward Northern Sea Route, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Environmental groups call for global moratorium on ‘emissions cheat’ systems on ships, Eye on the Arctic

Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer

For more news from the Barents region visit The Independent Barents Observer.

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