One of the things that struck me hardest on the 2019 Expedition was just how much Svalbard, and especially its capital, Longyearbyen, has changed.
The last time I had seen it was in 1996, so 23 years before.
As our aircraft approached Longyearbyen everything looked much as it had done all those years ago: the mountains, glaciers and fjords with the town a dot in the distance. But as we got closer to the airport I could see the town had grown hugely since 1996 – and it all looked so neat!
Many of the buildings are brightly coloured, the roads looked well made. In 1996 it was all brown & dust, still pretty much a coal-mining settlement, everything covered with a layer of coal dust and on the edge of the world.
Walking into the modern terminal building to pick up our baggage, the contrast with the airport huts of the old days was stark; no cashpoint machines in those days. After a long sleep on the boat that would take us to our ultimate destination next day, we walked into “town” to collect our equipment. The old power plant was still there but where had all those restaurants come from? And the UNIS university building. And the seed vault high on the mountainside. And the supermarkets and souvenir shops? It was all a bit of a shock. Tourism is a large part of the answer. I remember seeing the occasional cruise ship in the fjords back as far as 1983, now they’re far more common – and bigger.
When we sailed back into Longyearbyen at the end of the expedition we were greeted by the sight of a 4,000 person cruise liner that was in the process of sounding its horns to call them all back to the ship – the town looked like Piccadilly Circus.
Longyearbyen is still on the edge of the world but the world likes to visit it. The irony is a twenty minute walk from Longyearbyen will take you back to the old days.