Up in the arctic cold, the hardy folks of Hammerfest and Honningsvaag are getting hot over who deserves the title of the world's northernmost town.
No one denies Honningsvaag is 25 miles north of Hammerfest. But with only 3,000 people, it is not considered a town under Norwegian law, just a "population center.""The World's Northernmost Population Center" doesn't quite have the ring for a marketing campaign. And it would be unwieldy to put on T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs that keep cash registers ringing in Hammerfest, a veritable arctic metropolis with 10,000 people.
Honningsvaag can't even make the unwieldy claim, anyway. Longyearbyen, in Norway's Svalbard archipelago, is far to the north.
For both Hammerfest and Honningsvaag, there's the little problem of Barrow, a town of about 4,000 people on the northern shore of Alaska that is farther north. But Barrow doesn't seem intent on vying for the northernmost title, and the Norwegians are ignoring it.
"Being the world's northernmost town is our trademark," said Kristin P. Molmann in Hammerfest. "Many tourists wouldn't come here if weren't for that. They would just drive by."
She stopped to talk after signing up member No. 169,345 for the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society, which runs a museum and sells memberships to tourists.
The polar bear is a theme for the town. A bear statue stands in the square in front of the town hall, and the souvenir stands that cater to tourists offer stuffed polar bears as well as northernmost town souvenirs and reindeer skins.
Although at the far northern rim of Norway, both Hammerfest and Honningsvaag are not isolated. Both have small airports, and roads leading south are kept open all year.
Residents of the two communities have traded barbs in their dispute for decades, but the words turned ugly in 1996 when a proposed national law change looked like it would allow Honningsvaag to become an official town.
Honningsvaag officials began getting death threats, said Bjornar Pettersen, deputy mayor of the township that includes Honningsvaag.
Parliament responded by amending the law again to say a community must have at least 5,000 residents to be designated a town, leaving Honningsvaag 2,000 short.
Hammerfest "used every political trick they could muster," Pettersen fumed. "It's absurd. Honningsvaag is clearly a town, too."
So Hammerfest didn't have to take down the signs all over town that assure visitors they are in the world's northernmost town, nearly 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Not that it necessarily makes a difference to tourists.
"Is it?" asked Jay Fox of Palo Alto, Calif., a recent visitor who seemed unimpressed by the claim. He said the only reason he was in Hammerfest was because it was part of a package tour.
Even though Honningsvaag lost the latest round over town status, Pettersen said the battle was worth it.