Carsten Wuenscher, 41, knew nothing about Svalbard before arriving Wednesday morning, but clearly was eager to start learning as he was the first to disembark from the 2,100-passenger AIDAluna after it became the first large cruise ship to dock here this year.
“I think it’s the best way to explore the north of Europe,” the Düsseldorf resident said. “It’s cold.”
Wuenscher said this is his third cruise and a considerable contrast to his previous balmy voyage to Australia in November. Traveling to Svalbard with his parents, he said they were planning to take a wheeled dogsledding tour, but he got off the German-flagged ship quickly so he could explore Longyearbyen alone on foot before the tour started at 10 a.m.
That meant he had a couple of hours to discover things on his own, since the ship arrived at the harbor at 7 a.m. – one hour ahead of its originally scheduled time, a decision made due to the lengthy docking process because of the vessel’s slow winches. It took nearly an hour between the time the ship stopped and Wuenscher’s arrival at the passenger security gate.
Local officials were notified about the early arrival the day before, which meant some quick adjustments for the now large-scale apparatus of greeters, guided tours and those in a large welcoming tent. Among those rising much earlier than planned was Anci Haugerud, a project coordinator for Visit Svalbard, who left home at 6 a.m. to organize a traditional first-ship greeting party on the mountainside across the road from the harbor.
“We had to move quickly to get people here,” she said. About 15 people were waving flags, drinking coffee and eating pastries when the AIDAluna came to a stop, compared to about 40 people last year.
But Haugerud said the effort is well worthwhile.
“We were told last year by the cruise line it was noticed,” she said.
While the ship’s passengers were mere dots from the mountainside – and vice versa – a handful were waving towels and other items in greetings from the decks and cabin balconies.
An array of flags would also normally be flying from the dock, but Harbormaster Kjetil Bråten said they were omitted for the first arrival since the German flag in the collection is damaged – and omitting it would be an obvious slight for the German ship and many passengers from that country.
Busses, taxis and other vehicles began arriving about the same time passengers began disembarking. Continuing a coordinated effort between cruise lines and local tour operators that began a couple of years ago, a sizable percentage of passengers departed on prearranged tours immediately after disembarking, with the tours ending in the center of town with the objective of getting visitors to visit shops and cafes before returning to the ship before its departure.
“The big difference now from only a few years ago is things are organized,” said Visit Svalbard Director Ronny Brunvoll.
The coordination is considered crucial since an aggressive effort is being made to expand cruise ship tourism. In recent years up to 6,000 passengers have arrived on multiple ships during a single day, overwhelming tour companies and businesses beyond their capacity.
Brunvoll said there are about five new companies affiliated with Visit Svalbard compared to last year, brining the overall total to about 75. He said the total number of passengers expected to arrive this year is roughly the same as the 44,336 that visited last year.
But while the AIDAluna loomed large on Wednesday morning compared to some smaller passenger ships also making port calls, it soon will find itself being overshadowed.
“This is a small one,” Bråten said, noting the ship is 69,200 tons. Arriving for the first time this year on June 16 is the French-flagged MSC Meraviglia, which at 171,598 tons will be the largest cruise ship to ever dock in Longyearbyen.
“The capacity of that ship is 4,500 passengers, but I don’t think they will bring that many up here,” Bråten said, noting about 3,500 are currently booked. “I hope they don’t bring that many up there. That is too many for us.”
Weather and other conditions will likely need to be idea for the ship to dock at the pier, otherwise the ship will have to anchor in the channel and ferry passengers ashore.
The harbor’s limited ability handle ships of such size has made a new pier a top priority for many local officials, with a proposed twin-pier floating dock now in the planning stages. Bråten said he expects the new harbor to be in use by 2021.
In addition to crowding, concerns have been voiced about the environmental and other adverse impacts of increasing tourism. The industry has responded in recent years with efforts such as responsible behavior campaigns and offering trash cleanups on beaches as a shore excursion (with some offering discount fares for passengers who spend half their shore time doing pickups). New this year is a large-scale effort by the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators to expand such cleanups and reduce disposable plastic items on member ships.