Tony Dunne obviously made an effort to get an early start since he was the first passenger to step off the first cruise ship docking in Longyearbyen this summer, but he didn’t sound like someone scurrying to savor the sights and sounds of Svalbard.
“To be honest I have no idea why we’re here,” the resident of Kitzbühel, Austria, said as he walked past the security gate to where a half dozen buses, a lone trumpet player and a couple of people advertising day trips to Barentsburg awaited under drizzly skies at about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. “It’s something to cross off the list.”
His girlfriend, Tamara Auer, the second passenger to disembark from the 2,100-passenger AIDAluna, offered a sharper sense of purpose, noting their main plan for the day was a dogsledding tour (on snow, not the wheeled carts many tourists will experience later during the season).
Auer, who works as a travel agent, said they’re used to cold weather since they live in the Alps, and they first learned about and started thinking about visiting Svalbard a year ago, even though they’re not part of the regular cruise ship crowd
“This is our first,” she said.
The couple, along with an estimated 45,000 other people this summer, will be visiting Longyearbyen during a year when their presence will be more of a central focus of the community than ever. This is the first non-wartime summer in the town’s 110-year history when coal mining is essentially a fringe industry rather than a dominant one – due to the collapse of coal prices, and resulting mass layoffs and near total shutdown of mining at Store Norske – and local and national leaders are now placing their hopes on a doubling of tourism and research to replace many of those jobs.
But while Longyearbyen is in a state of dramatic transition, its historic reputation is what tourists are still learning about before their arrive.
“I know it’s a cold town and there’s a coal company,” said Dunne, when asked what he knew about Svalbard when he stepped off the ship. “There’s also the seed vault and there’s more polar bears than people.”
(It’s also possible the oft-repeated line about polar bears may not be true either, since the Norwegian Polar Institute’s census last summer estimates there are 975 bears in the archipelago. Previous counts and estimates have stated there is a common population of about 3,000 bears in Svalbard and Franz Joseph Land, with some of the animals transitioning between the two.)
Local tourism officials said they are hoping passengers spend an average of at least 1,000 kroner. While Dunne and Auer will certainly spend that much on their dogsledding tour, she was noncommittal about any Svalbard-specific souvenirs she wanted other than saying she planned to mail a few postcards.
Many of the passengers quickly boarded buses that departed as soon as they were full for pre-arranged tours, while others wandered into the harbor’s visitor center and an adjacent information tent set up for the first time this year, hoping to find an activity of interest – even if they weren’t quite sure what that might be. One person seeking information settled for a map and became one of many setting out on a walking tour, for instance, while a group of three after some hasty chatter spontaneously decided to spend most of their day getting a Soviet-like experience with the boat trip to Barentsburg.
But virtually all interviewed named the same traditional things – ice, polar bears, other wildlife, pristine environment – as the main lures here.
“We are very interested in all these northern places like Iceland and Norway, and the bears and the ice” said Anna Hoffman, traveling with a small group of friends from Cologne, Germany. As for choosing chilly spots instead of a more traditional summer destination, “warm places are everywhere. This is something unique.”