Here at YPT we are fairly interest in (obsessed by) the idea and the rules of what constitutes a country. In October 2020 we are heading to Svalbard, so let’s tackle the question: just what is Svalbard?
At face value the answer is easy: no, Svalbard is not a country, it is a part of Norway. It may be at least half way between actual Norway and the North Pole, but the Svalbard Treaty of 1920 recognised Svalbard as a sovereign part of the Kingdom of Norway. Not a dependency, but a sovereign part.
However, it is a bit trickier this. Svalbard is also a free economic zone and a demilitarised zone, reflecting its geographical location and importance for access to the Arctic and historical use by various countries, from the Netherlands to Denmark, and Norway to the Soviet Union and its successor state, Russia. The British, as you can imagine, also tried to have their say whenever they could too.
In fact one of the reasons the British weren’t able to have more of a say in the future of Svalbard is that firstly World War One messed with proceedings, but also the USA had been heavily involved in the beginning of the coal mining industry on the archipelago.
Probably in order to annoy the British, but mainly to ensure equal access to the area for all nations, Svalbard was recognised as Norwegian, but all countries who signed the agreement were granted non-discriminatory rights to hunting, fishing, mineral resources and arctic exploration.
The Germans of course laid their claim during World War Two, but their garrison on Svalbard claimed the unlikely prize of being the actual last Germans to surrender during the war; not because of their unflinching loyalty, they just hadn’t heard that the war in Europe had ended. When they did, they surrendered straight away to the captain of a seal-hunting vessel.
After the war the Soviet Union attempted to mediate joint administration with Norway, but Norway refused. The archipelago did retain its status as a free zone, however, and the Soviet presence remained strong, actually having the majority of the population.
Today Svalbard is a visa-free zone: you can be from any country and live and work there indefinitely. Some have even used it as a base to eventually gain Norwegian citizenship. Unfortunately though, you may be able to enter Svalbard on any passport, but you have to go through Norway and therefore need a Schengen visa.
So there you have it, Svalbard is definitely a part of Norway, but it’s certainly a unique part, and we think that its history and status basically makes it an actual country and one for the collectors. Like we have said before, if you simply turned up in Svalbard on a seal-hunting ship would that count as having visited Norway? The answer to that is a definite no, and you’ll realise why when you’re sipping a (relatively) cheap beer in tax-free Longyearbyen!
Join YPT on our Svalbard tour next October!