Was it good for them? 6,000-person cruise ship might be tight fit for locals, but visitors say they had a peak experience

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Eric Pireyn said his family arrived without pre-booking a tour, but managed to rent a car and take a full driving tour that included spotting a polar fox near the campsite (which his eight-year-old daughter Anna called the day’s high point). She and her sister Nina, 5, were wearing “husky head” fur hats they bought during the day as they headed back to a cruise ship towering above the buildings in town around dinnertime.

“This is special,” Pireyn said, comparing it to two other port stops made by the MSC Meraviglia, a 316-meter-long ship with room for 6,036 passengers and crew, which made its second stop as the largest ship to dock in Longyearbyen on Wednesday. “This is like a little Alaska and we are very attracted to the north…I think they have done a lot of effort.”

As with the ship’s first visit in mid-June, there were a lot of rough edges as the crowds overflowed the town’s natural capacity in terms of tours, shops and cafes. Some locals again reported incidents of deplorable visitor behavor, including a particularly disruptive incident of disturbing birds, and some visitors were clearly pained by a lack of  restrooms and things to do since virtually all major tours were fully booked.

But at the end of the day it was obvious size was a relative thing between the 2,200 local residents and the cruise visitors who greatly outnumbered them.

“Given that you have 2,500 people, yes, I can say that felt crowded,” said Oliver Meinekie, visiting with his family of five. “But I wouldn’t say I felt there were any problems.”

Meinekie said he was hoping his family could do a dogsled-on-wheels tour, but they didn’t have enough spaces when he tried to prebook on the ship. Instead they took a trip to Camp Barents where they recieved a presentation about polar bears and other aspects of Svalbard.

Several passengers said aggressive efforts were made to sell prebooked tours on the ship, which local tour operators have been coordinating with cruise lines the past few years. And most of the disappointed tourists encountered were those setting out on their own (albeit with limited abilities/ambitions – a few observed asking about getting to Nybyen to view the glacier were reluctant about making the 20-minute walk).

But Regina Aichner, a guide who lives the Italian Alps and was visiting with her mother, said there are plenty of options for motivated independent-minded cruisers and following the advice onboard may not be the best of them.

“I did everything independently other than collecting fossils, which I did from the ship,” she said.

Aichner’s mother ended up taking a bus tour because sbe wasn’t as mobile, but the daughter thought the onboard sales pitch was too generally focused.

“They really wanted to force my mother to get on a tour because it’s cold here,” she said. “But we are used to the cold because we live in the Alps.”

Although Aichner was returning with a crowd of others after a full day that started at 8:30 a.m., she said it was just to check to see if she had time for an evening hilltop hike before the ship departed.

“I was very surprised because I had a very good lecture about Longyearbyen on the ship, but they didn’t mention the North Pole Museum,” she said, referring to the lesser-known expedition museum across the street from Svalbard Museum, which she said was a highlight of the day.

Some complaints by locals about lesser-known and independent tour offerings being overlooked during the Meraviglia’s first visit were previously voiced. Attempts to interview dozens of passengers during their return were largely greeted with suspicion and rejection by vistors who didn’t speak Norwegian or English well.

Aichner said many of her fellow passengers seem to relish the safe and predictable comforts offered as part of the megaship’s overall experience.

“I think their expectations are too high,” she said. “They can’t have everything handed to them on a silver platter. You have to walk around.”

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