To describe Hjörtur Smárason's job as challenging would be a huge understatement. In this video you'll hear how the CEO is tackling very visible global warming with a critical need to bring in more tourists — and why influencers and journalists are top of his list.
Skift Forum Europe
Skift Forum Europe was held in London, England on March 24, 2022. Find out about future Skift events through the link below.
Editor’s Note: Hjörtur Smárason announced on LinkedIn four days ago that Visit Greenland terminated his contract.
How many people would be willing to take three flights and a boat ride to visit a restaurant? We’re about to find out, as Greenland embarks on a new chapter in tourism development.
However, Visit Greenland’s CEO Hjörtur Smárason has warned the country has a difficult balancing act ahead, marrying sustainability with economic development, which is needed to ensure younger residents have opportunities ahead.
As well as building two new airports, and continuing to welcome smaller cruise ships, Greenland is also considering a new hotel. “We don’t want a Las Vegas style hotel with loads of rooms and affordable accommodation,” Smárason told Skift Founder and CEO Rafat Ali at Skift Forum Europe. “What we’re looking at is we would love to see an international chain, but then it should be someone who’s building the flagship hotel when it comes to sustainability.”
Watch the video, or read the full transcript of it, below to hear the CEO talk passionately about preserving Greenland’s future in the face of a changing world.
Rafat Ali: So we have a surprise speaker, the speaker from Wizz Air, she could not come and speak. I don’t know if I should say this, I don’t know if she has COVID or not, but she has something so she’s not able to come. So what we decided, we’re going to pull the person from the audience who has the hardest pronunciation of all to say “Come on stage because we’re going to butcher your name and you’re going to hate us by the end of this.” So pronounce your name again for all of us.
Hjörtur Smárason: Hjörtur.
Ali: Hjörtur, OK.
Ali: So Icelandic name, we just had on stage 20 minutes ago, two countries, 90 million tourists and 94 million tourists. And you are bigger than both of them put together. Correct?
Smárason: We are bigger than both of them put together plus the UK plus Germany.
Ali: In terms of size.
Ali: Not in terms of number tourists.
Smárason: Not quite.
Ali: So tell me, 100,000 tourists?
Smárason: Yes. 107 in a good year.
Ali: 107, good year. So the reason I wanted Greenland on stage to talk to you is you are, when people talk about climate change, you are living it. You’re in the middle of it, you’re seeing it, you are giving some examples. Give some examples of how you are seeing it in your daily lives, in front of your eyes.
Smárason: Yeah, it’s quite extreme. Greenland, as probably most of you know, that’s usually why people hear about Greenland is because of climate change. We’re seeing the ice sheets melting, three times the average temperature rise is what we’re seeing in Greenland, so people are really feeling it. We’re talking about people there who live from nature, so any change in nature really affects their life, hunters and fishermen who cannot hunt and fish the same way they used to. And if we take as an example, I mentioned to you earlier today, on the east coast, the sea ice where the sea freezes in the winter time is now 800 kilometers further north than it used to be just 20 to 30 years ago. And to put that into context, that’s like if the sea ice was in London 30 years ago but now it’s in Berlin. That’s the distance we are talking about, the sea ice that has disappeared in the last 30 years. So of course it has a huge impact on life in the country.
Ali: Some would say that opens up, metaphorically and literally, the country for more tourism.
Smárason: It does.
Ali: Meaning the thawing of the ice, all the metaphors which are actually real things, not even just metaphors in Greenland, that’s the reason why there’s so much interest in Greenland for minerals and mining and stuff which I know you are holding at bay in many ways. Does that make your job easier in a long term?
It’s an interesting challenge because of course it’s hard to sell a country where you need to fly to on the basis of the story that it’s the epicenter of climate change, which is the consequences of us flying too much and using too much. So how do we solve that? And I come from Iceland originally where we had a similar challenge with the Eyjafjallajokull eruption, just to add more difficult words here. But we managed to turn a negative event into a positive story and I think it’s the same approach we do have in Greenland. So yes, it’s a negative story, but it catches the attention of the media. And we try to get the focus away from just the ice and towards the people that live there. So who are the people who are living in Greenland and what are they experiencing and how are they adapting?
Smárason: And Greenlanders have, through thousands of years, been the experts in adapting to extreme climate. Using the dog sled to travel on the ice, using the kayak, that’s a Greenlandic invention, to fish and today they are leading the way when it comes to adaptation to extreme climate changes. And so one of the options when your livelihood is maybe disappearing because of climate change, that’s tourism. Can we build tourism instead? That creates jobs in the small settlements and some opportunities for the youngsters who maybe don’t want to go, they want to stay there, but they can’t live the same life as their fathers and mothers.
Ali: So if you talk to a lot of tourism heads, a lot of their time is spent talking to airlines to start airline routes.
Ali: But you can’t do that.
Smárason: Well, we do, but we try to be very selective on it because when we think about, I compare of course Greenland to Iceland a lot, and if we think about the development there a lot happened when we got all the new airlines in and you have Easyjet and Ryanair and Wizz Air flying from the UK to Iceland. And that makes sense, because you can rent a car and all of a sudden we have 200,000 new cars in Iceland for rentals. You can’t do that in Greenland, there are no roads in Greenland. So you can’t just rent a car, you land at the airport and if that’s your plan you’re never going to leave the airport.
No two towns in Greenland are connected by roads. You need to travel by plane, by helicopter, by boat or by dog sled. So it puts limitations on how you can travel and it adds onto the cost, so it means that we need to go for a specific segment that both has the means to pay for these modes of transportation and is also willing to face the challenges that come with traveling in this way. Because it is more challenging, but it’s also very, very rewarding.
Ali: Mm-hmm (affirmative) You said you’re building two new airports because capacity isn’t there?
Smárason: Yes, correct. So currently we have one international airport in a place called Kangerlussuaq, an airport built by the US army in world war II. Fantastic location for an airport, but the main destinations are Nuuk, the capital and a town called the Ilulissat where you have the giant icebergs, which is probably the tourists picture you see the most from Greenland.
Ali: Speaking of which, we forgot the best thing, right? We had to show the videos and the photos?
Smárason: Yeah, let’s take a look at that if we can.
Ataata, my father, he taught me to hunt. To read the landscape, to understand the nature, to talk to the dogs, to adapt to the extreme climate. But things are changing. The animals are migrating, the glacier is melting, the ice is not secure anymore. Times are changing and yet again we need to start a journey into the unknown.
Ali: So just to give a sense of the desolateness of the place in general is, pardon me, but is the population decreasing or increasing?
Smárason: The population has been the same for years now. And to put it into context, we talked about how big Greenland is earlier, there are 56,000 people living in all of Greenland. If every New Yorker had the same space as Greenlanders do, there would be two people in New York.
Ali: I live in Queens, Astoria, which is a neighborhood and more people probably within a mile of where I lived than 56,000 people.
Ali: I know you did a campaign during the pandemic, I remember you won a Skift award as well I think if I remember right, Skift IDEA award, on trying to get locals to travel.
Smárason: Yes, correct. A video called “Flatten the curve.” We have actually the author of the script there.
Ali: Of the script there. so explain, obviously with a very small country, small population, was there any domestic tourism before?
Smárason: Very little. Also because it costs the same in many cases to travel domestically as it costs to travel out of the country so people very often, that was the natural choice. But now people have been discovering that their own home country can be a fantastic destination and I think many countries can relate to that. And in our case, the population is 56,000 so it did have an impact for tourism industry because we have such low numbers beforehand.
Ali: Right. If anybody has any questions please use the app, I’ll be happy to take a few questions. In terms of makeup of the current 107,000 tourists, we were talking a little earlier, obviously Danish tourists are probably the large majority of it?
Smárason: Yes, that’s the biggest group, clearly. Then we have Germans, Brits and Americans. These are the biggest group that are coming.
Ali: Are you thinking about which countries would you like to attract more? I know you don’t do traditional marketing, explain how you do marketing.
Smárason: We primarily focus on journalists, just because we have very, very low budgets. We’re not even half the size of Fargo in the US when it comes to population, so we focus on journalists and we focus on getting the right stories out there and preferably stories that attract the right people and maybe scare others away because we don’t want everyone. We don’t have the capacity for it.
Ali: Yeah. The back anecdote is that we do a retreat every year and we were thinking of talking to you to come this year, we had not been going for the last two years. We were about 60, 60 plus people but you just don’t have the capacity to bring 60 people in a group so we’re not going.
Smárason: It’s a challenge.
Ali: But hopefully at some point.
Ali: So you don’t have any marketing budgets, traditional marketing budgets, in the way that…
Smárason: It’s very, very low. It’s minimal. We use that in the Danish market, which is our main market, but otherwise we focus on influencers and journalists and getting the right stories out to the right people. And for us, it’s very important when we think about how to develop tourism because as I said earlier, climate change is the big story and then you need to fly there. So it creates this contradiction, everyone is talking about fly shaming. So how does that impact?
Ali: And particularly in the Nordics…
Smárason: In the Nordics, yeah.
Ali: It’s becoming a bigger and bigger thing.
Smárason: Yeah, it does. And that’s our core market. But we have a few things that are going for us. First of all, we focus on sustainability, that’s the core of everything we do. It’s the core of pretty much most of the things that the government is doing at the moment.
Ali: That’s the core of living there.
Smárason: It’s the core of living, that’s how you survive. So the current government was voted in to stop uranium mining in the country and focus on other possibilities, which is tourism. They’ve signed the Paris agreement, they were the first Arctic nation to stop oil and gas exploration. So they’re really taking big steps towards sustainability, but it’s also important for us to think about what does sustainability mean in a Greenlandic context? If we ask a German person, how is a sustainable lifestyle? One of the things will be, I’m a vegetarian. But that’s maybe the wrong way to think about it because…
Ali: Because there’s no vegetables that will grow in…
Smárason: You can’t grow any vegetables in Greenland. So eating sustainably is eating whale meat, for one thing, it’s usually not something you connect to it. Or reindeer, or Musk ox or the local fish and stuff like that. And secondly, we ask ourselves all the time, why are we doing this? Why do we want tourists? And of course we want tourist to create job opportunities for the youngsters, possibilities to maintain the settlements. You see the dog sled here in the picture, dog sledding is a very, very old tradition. It’s been part of the life of the locals for, what, 6,000 years or something like that.
But we are seeing there were 35,000 dogs in 1990, now there are 15,000 left because the ice is disappearing. So more than half of the dogs have disappeared. And we see tourism as a way to maintain the knowledge that is behind the dog sledding culture. So sustainability is also about social sustainability, how do we get tourism to support the local economies and the local communities, be inclusive and create opportunities and sense of ownership?
Ali: So I guess there are a couple of cruises, are the cruises coming to Greenland?
Smárason: Yes, they love Greenland.
Ali: But does Greenland love them?
Smárason: There is a good relationship. And for me, this was relatively new and I’ve come to understand that I may have had some prejudice against cruise. There are very different levels and different scales. We focus on, in our marketing, we try to attract expedition ships and expedition ship are smaller cruise ships, usually under 500 passengers. And they have passengers that leave much more with the local communities. We can better handle that number of people when they come ashore, so it makes a lot more sense. And like there, with everything else, we are trying to grow tourism in Greenland. We are trying to create new opportunities, get new cruises, get new hotels.
But in every case, it’s sustainability that needs to be the key. So if we are getting a new hotel, we don’t want a Las Vegas style hotel with loads of rooms and affordable accommodation. What we’re looking at is we would love to see an international chain, but then it should be someone who’s building the flagship hotel when it comes to sustainability. And as you see here this is our long term goal, becoming one of the leading sustainable destinations in the world. And you are comparing us to France and Spain earlier with 90 and 95 million tourists. For them to become sustainable, it’s a huge challenge. For us who are starting from scratch, it’s much easier because we have tabula rasa, it’s a blank canvas, right? And if all the investment we get into tourism in the country is in the direction of sustainability, we actually have a competitive advantage and we have a very, very good chance of achieving this in just a matter of few years.
Ali: You’ve also, we were talking a little backstage, focused a little bit on the… Since you come from Iceland, one of the challenges when Iceland was first rising after the volcano, or right around that time, was that they had to develop the FNB and food and restaurant because it just didn’t have enough beyond their local cuisine. How are you thinking about that?
Smárason: We are encouraging people to look more at restaurants. Luckily, we have very good examples. Of course, Noma in Copenhagen is an inspiration in all of the Nordics, including Greenland, which was the best restaurant in the world, focusing on local ingredients. We’ve seen what has happened in Iceland and has worked really well.
Ali: And the Faroe Islands is also…
Smárason: And the Faroe islands as well. So we are getting new restaurants and the Greenlandic raw materials are absolutely fantastic. It’s the freshest, cleanest food you can get. And now we’re getting Koks, the Michelin restaurant from Faroe Islands is moving to Greenland, which is absolutely fantastic. So we really look forward to see…
Ali: And you think that you will see the boost in tourism, or a certain type?
Smárason: I don’t think we’ll necessarily see a boost in tourism. We will certainly attract a new segment, but one of the things that we will see, which I’m pretty certain about, is a ripple effect. Other restaurants will learn from it and inspire from it. And again, if we take Noma in Copenhagen as an example, before Noma was opened up in Copenhagen the culinary scene in Copenhagen was pretty much hot dogs and frikadella. Not really exciting, but all of a sudden people were flying in private jets to eat at Noma and it built up a reputation of being a gastronomical destination. So it put pressure on other restaurants to raise the bar and be inspired and offer better food. So I expect the same to happen in Greenland, that other restaurants will be inspired from it and they’ll see that you can actually have a restaurant in a very remote location. You need to take, usually, three flights to get there plus a boat ride and you need to stay overnight to get to the restaurant. It’s extremely remote, but a fantastic experience and totally unique.
Ali: Is it open yet?
Smárason: It opens June 12th, if I recall correctly. But you can start booking!
Ali: Question from Jason, what destinations do you look to for ideas, creativities that you can learn from?
Smárason: We luckily don’t need to go far to search for inspiration. Both Iceland and the Faroe islands have been doing fantastic job, both in terms of product development but also in terms of their marketing and how they use PR.
Ali: [crosstalk 00:18:16].
Smárason: Yeah, so that’s excellent. And we have close collaboration with them, so we seek a lot of inspiration from them. Otherwise, it’s…
Ali: What do you not want to learn from Iceland? Because Iceland has gone through challenges as well.
Smárason: Yes, absolutely. And I have in my slideshow a picture of a sign from a farmer in Iceland with a picture of a red circle and a red line over it and it’s a tourist pooping. It was a problem because Iceland wasn’t ready for the influx of tourists and they came too fast and it created this sense of mass tourism. And mass tourism is not the volume of tourist that comes, it’s a management issue. How much capacity can you build? And because it came so suddenly in Iceland, Iceland wasn’t ready. In Greenland we are opening up the new airports, the first season will be 2025 so we have three years to prepare. So we are looking at micro infrastructure, so pathways, parking spots, toilet facilities, service facilities, small harbors or landing spots for boats, et cetera. That helps us spread the tourists because the land is big enough, there’s enough room for everyone. We just make to make sure that they can get away.
Ali: They can get there. Well, thank you. I think we’re right out of time and thank you for doing this last second. We really appreciate it, thank you.
Smárason: Thank you.
Ali: Thank you.
Photo credit: Visit Greenland CEO Hjörtur Smárason spoke with Skift Founder and CEO Rafat Ali at Skift Forum Europe 2022 on March 24, 2022, in London. Source: Skift.