A Norwegian cruise ship is banned from sailing to Russia’s Franz Josef Land

Hurtigruten's MS Spitsbergen was abruptly forced to cancel plans to sail to the Russian Arctic archipelago via Murmansk.

By Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer - August 20, 2019
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The Hurtigruten ship MS Spitsbergen is seen in Molde, Norway in 2016/ The ship had been scheduled to sail to Franz Josef Land in Russia’s Arctic this month before permission was withdrawn. (IsalovAuk / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Two-hundred fifty passengers will no longer get to Franz Josef Land in the Russian Arctic as originally planned, after Hurtigruten was forced to cancel a sailing there just two weeks before the first voyage when Russian authorities denied permission.

Anne Marit Bjørnflaten, Hurtigruten’s head of communication, says the cruise line is “very surprised” by Russian authorities denying the expedition cruise ship MS Spitsbergen permission to sail to Franz Josef Land.

“Despite the fact that MS Spitsbergen meets the requirements of the Polar Code, and has permissions to sail in these areas of the Arctic, Russian authorities in the last minute unexpectedly denied us,” Bjørnflaten told the Barents Observer.

Hurtigruten has been told there will be Russian military exercise activities in the area at the time of the planned voyages.

The newspaper Klassekampen first reported about the ban.

Compensation will be offered to passengers who bought tickets, starting at €5,600 per person, for the voyage.

The decision comes as a blow to Norwegian and Russian regional authorities that for years have promoted and facilitated Hurtigruten’s efforts to start sailing to northern Russia.

MS Spitsbergen is purpose built to sail explorer-style tours to Arctic waters and has previously been to Svalbard, Greenland and Arctic Canada.

A map shows the intended voyage of the MS Spitsbergen from Norway to Franz Josef Land via Murmansk. (Hurtigruten)

Hurtigruten would have been the third non-Russian cruise liner to sail to Franz Josef Land, the archipelago consisting of 191 islands stretching from 80 to 82 degrees North. Surrounded by icy waters most of the year, Franz Josef Land in the northeastern Barents Sea is even further north than Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic.

Unlike Poseidon Expeditions, which sails voyages from Longyearbyen on Svalbard to Franz Josef Land, was Hurtigruten supposed to sail via Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula before heading north.

Poseidon Expeditions was founded by Nikolai Saveliev, a Russian businessman who started offering North Pole and Arctic cruises in 1998. Saveliev was previously working for the Russian Ministry of Economy followed by several years in Russia’s Federal Maritime and River Transport Agency. Poseidon Expeditions has its headquarters at Cyprus.

Another foreign cruise ship, the Silver Explorer is currently en route along the Northern Sea Route as reported by the Barents Observer last week. The ship is scheduled to arrive to Franz Josef Land during the very last days of August.

That is at the same time as Hurtigruten’s first voyage was supposed to sail.

Tsentr-2019 exercise

Russia has this week conducted exercises in the sea outside Northern Norway with a powerful flotilla of about 30 navy ships and many aircraft flying out from the Kola Peninsula en route outside Norwegian air space.

In September, Russian military kicks off the large-scale strategic command staff exercise Tsentr-2019. The exercise will take place along the Northern Sea Route and will likely involve the re-established Arctic military bases, including the one on Aleksandra Island on Franz Josef Land.

A goal with Tsentr-2019 is to demonstrate Russia’s denial capabilities in the Arctic and its improved manoeuvrability in icy waters. Several navy ships have already left their homeport in Severomorsk en route to Arctic archipelagos and destinations along the Northern Sea Route.

Last year’s large-scale exercise Vostok-2018 involved about 300,000 soldiers and personnel and it is expected a similar size this autumn.

Hurtigruten is today the largest cruise liner operating the Arctic with expedition vessels sailing the waters off Svalbard, Greenland and Iceland in addition to year-around daily voyages along the coast of northern Norway all the way to Kirkenes near the Russian border.

“We continue dialogue with Russian authorities in regards to future sailings,” Bjørnflaten says.

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