Lonely Planet Writer

An abandoned Soviet mining town has become an unlikely tourist attraction

A coal mining town on Svalbard, the remote archipelago far north in the Arctic Ocean, has become an unlikely travel attraction for adventure lovers. Barentsburg, a Russian outpost on the islands, is home to Grumant, a company that offers tours with a difference for visitors.

Barentsburg, Svalbard
The Russian outpost of Barentsburg. Image by Sergey Dolya

Svalbard is about halfway between the northern mainland of Europe and the North Pole and is best known as the home of the Global Seed Vault, which preserves plant seeds in the event of an environmental catastrophe. It is famously remote and one of its towns Ny-Alesund is the northernmost continuously occupied civilian settlement in the world.

The Russian settlement of Pyrmiden
Pyramiden, Svalbard. Image by Sergey Dolya

The giant archipelago has fewer than 1000 people living there … a population that is bolstered by the estimated 1000 polar bears in the area. Apart from being probably the best place in the world to see polar bears, nature lovers can also see reindeers, Arctic foxes, and a wide variety of seabirds.

Adventure boat tour on Svalbard
Svalbard boat tour. Image by Sergey Dolya

Svalbard has seven national parks in total as well as twenty-three nature reserves and its landscape is one of the most unspoilt in the world. Sergey Shirokiy of Grumant told Lonely Planet: “We offer a broad range of adventure and nature experiences in Svalbard, from short day activities and long weekends in the wilderness to multi-day adventure tours and expeditions.”

Exploring the glacier on snowscooters
Snowscooter glacier tour. Image by Sergey Dolya

Visitors can do nature and wildlife watching tours by boat, kayak, snowmobile safari, or on foot, dependent on the weather conditions.“Our clients always travel in small groups,” said Sergey, “which is a must to ensure quality experience and close encounters with the wildlife. With us, travellers are in the company of like-minded people who enjoy exploration and have a genuine interest in beautiful nature scenery and wildlife.”

Although much of their clientele is Russian, they also offer English tours as well as tailor-made trips for international tour operators.