Greenland may be physically larger than Germany, France, Spain, and the UK combined, but that does not mean it is ready — nor wants — a surge in visitors flooding its shores.
The semi-autonomous territory administered by Denmark is taking a cautious, deliberate approach to growing its tourism sector, Visit Greenland CEO Hjörtur Smárason said at the Skift Forum Europe Thursday. The country wants additional visitors to provide jobs and opportunities for its citizens, but at the same time acknowledges that roads and related infrastructure is very limits. In addition, the country is living climate change with average temperatures rising three-times faster than more temperate climes, and sea ice rapidly retreating.
“Climate change is the big story, and then you need to fly there,” he said in conversation with Skift CEO Rafat Ali. “It creates this contradiction.”
Greenland is weighing its desire up its visitor numbers from around 107,000 people annually today with how to do so with minimal climate impact. Those plans include emphasizing local experiences and fare — whale meat anyone? — and unique attractions like dog sledding while not overwhelming the country either. Smárason draws lessons from Iceland’s experience with mass tourism boom in the 2010s that brought economic opportunity but also showed the pitfalls, from thousands of additional cars on the roads to too few toilets for visitors at popular spots.
One seeming blessing in disguise is the fact that Greenland lacks the infrastructure to handle a sudden jump in visitor numbers today. “No two towns in Greenland are connected by roads,” said Smárason. Hotels and other amenities are also limited.
This limit gives Greenland time to prepare, and gradually increase tourist numbers. The country is building two new airports, one in the capital Nuuk and the other in Ilulissat — a popular tourist destination to see icebergs — that can handle international flights. The country’s current main airport, Kangerlussuaq Airport that was built by the U.S. during World War II, is far from both population centers and popular destinations that requires residents and visitors alike take additional domestic flights once they arrive. The new Nuuk and Ilulissat facilities are due to open in 2024, which gives the country time to prepare for additional arrivals.
In an October interview with FlightRadar24, Air Greenland CEO Jacob Nitter Sørensen called the new airports “both the biggest opportunity and the biggest threat” to the airline. The opportunities include the obvious growth potential, while the drawbacks include new competition and significant changes to Air Greenland’s domestic network with travelers no longer needing to fly through Kangerlussuaq.
Air Greenland and Icelandair are the only two airlines operating international flights to the island today, according to Cirium schedule data.
While work continues on Greenland’s new airports and related visitor infrastructure, there are some exciting new developments underway on the island. The Michelin-starred restaurant Koks from the Faroe Islands will open a location in Ilimanaq, Greenland, for the summer 2022 and 2023 seasons. While getting there won’t exactly be sustainable — Smárason said diners will need to take at least three flights and stay overnight — to eat at the restaurant.
Visit Greenland does not anticipate more visitors just for Koks, but maybe a new segment of visitor, said Smárason.
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