By Alister Doyle
OSLO (Reuters) - The Norwegian Arctic islands of Svalbard are discouraging last-minute visitors for a rare solar eclipse next week, warning that hotels are full, it will be freezing cold and polar bears are on the prowl.
Christin Kristoffersen, mayor of Svalbard's main settlement Longyearbyen, told Reuters an expected 1,500 visitors for the eclipse, on top of about 2,500 residents, meant the usually welcoming archipelago had reached a maximum safe limit.
"Safety comes first, even before the eclipse," she said. "We need to take care of people. It's terribly cold in March and we have the challenge with polar bears."
A bear killed a British teenager on Svalbard in 2011, the most recent fatality. On average, three bears a year are shot by people in self-defense on Svalbard.
A total eclipse, when the moon blocks the sun and its shadow falls on the Earth, will sweep across the Atlantic on March 20 but from land will only be visible from Svalbard and the Faroe Islands.
A partial eclipse will be seen in north Africa, Europe and north Asia. In London, for instance, 84 percent of the sun will be covered by the moon.
Hotels in both Svalbard and the Faroe Islands have been booked for years although the Faroe Islands still has some places to stay, including private homes.
In the best of cases, with clear skies, the northern lights may also be visible during the morning eclipse.
Skies on Friday are likely to be partly cloudy with a temperature of -17 degrees Celsius (1.4 Fahrenheit) in Longyearbyen and 3 Celsius (37) in Torshavn, the capital of the Faroes, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute indicates.
The Faroe Islands, a self-governing nation within Denmark, expects 8,000 visitors to swell its population of about 50,000, said Torstein Christiansen, tourism and business manager of Visit Torshavn.
It will be the first total eclipse on the islands since 1954, with the next expected in 2245.
Faroese camping sites, which usually only open in May, will open early for hardy visitors. "And we don't have polar bears," Christiansen told Reuters.
(Editing by Catherine Evans)