A year ago the first cruise passengers in Longyearbyen were a couple merely planning to walk into town to discover possible activities. This year the first passengers were a couple expressing anxiety about being among the relative few taking that approach.
“We’re looking for a trip,” the woman said while walking hurriedly through the parking lot. “We’re not sure we’ll get something because we didn’t book anything on the ship.”
The difference is intentional as local tour operators are building on an effort initiated last year to improve coordination of activities with cruise lines. While many hundreds of passengers clustered the streets between the dock and Longyearbyen immediately upon arrival last year, this year nearly all of the visitors disembarking from the 2,100-passsenger AIDAluna did so in clustered groups that immediately boarded buses, tour vans and wheeled dogsleds.
“It’s a cross network so now the people know what they are going to do when they get into Longyearbyen,” said Thomas Nilsen, office manager of Arctic Autorent, immediately after ending a phone call telling a visitor no vehicles were spontaneously available.
Tourism officials have said better coordination is needed as Longyearbyen seeks an increase in visitors to help replace lost coal mining jobs. That applies in particular to high-volume days where upwards of 5,000 people may visit during the day, stretching the capacity of tour operators, museums, shops and eateries to their limits. Among the goals is offering tours that conclude in the center of town, allowing visitors to go shopping or independently explore afterward.
Still, this being Svalbard, some passengers who didn’t book tours got at least as much amusement out of watching those who did. Two wheeled dogsleds at the dock, for example, attracted plenty of onlookers who watched both dog teams get comically snarled within meters of starting out.
“I like the dogs, but I don’t think they’re so happy,” said Caroline Carogiehl, a resident of Tirol, Austria, visiting with her husband Marco.
The couple said their initial plans consisted of “walking to the village and looking,” although they also hoped to see more than just civilization.
“I would like it if we could go hiking around, but I don’t know if we can do so on our own,” she said.
As is tradition, a group of locals – about two dozen this year – gathered starting at about 730 a.m. on the ridge across from the harbor to wave flags and greet the first ship to arrive. Those aboard the ship with a strong pair of binoculars might have been able to spot an only-in-Svalbard touch among the welcoming party since Ronny Brunvoll, head of the local tourism bureau, was responsible for standing polar bear guard duty with a rifle. However, all of the locals departed before the first passenger actually disembarked at about 8:20 a.m.