The more the ice melts, the hotter Greenland gets as a destination

Greenland is a massive country with huge potential and it has just taken two giant steps towards an exciting new future. First up, its electorate of just 39,000 last month voted into power the left-wing People’s Solidarity Party after throwing out the Social Democrats who had governed the world’s biggest island for 30 years. Then, three weeks later, Greenland officially took on new powers of self-governance paving the way for greater independence from Denmark.

By Andy Round

So what’s the big deal for the travel industry? For people unfamiliar with the country – four times the size of France with a total population of just 57,000 – the images of Greenland are with campaigners and politicians looking gloomily at shrinking seas of ice and shivering in dismay at the effect of global warming.

But every climate change cloud has a silver lining for the tourism industry and even global warming has an upside with dramatically increasing numbers of travellers keen to experience Greenland’s astonishing frozen landscape before it disappears. Tourism is growing rapidly. Cruise passenger numbers have jumped by 30 per cent from 22,051 in 2006 to 28,891 last year and in nine years the total number of travellers to Greenland has more than doubled from 26,410 in 1999 to 57,223 in 2008. The numbers may be small but the percentage increases are huge and so is the potential.

And there are other opportunities. The semi-autonomous province still relies heavily on major subsidies from Denmark to make up two-thirds of its economy, but the changing climate is offering new access to mineral, gas and oil reserves formerly locked away beneath hundreds of metres of ice. These resources could provide the financial security Greenland needs to take the next step on its road to independence after almost 300 years of Danish rule.

There are plenty of issues jostling for the new government’s attention – such as how it will exercise its new self-governing powers and the fall-out from the global economic crisis – but a ‘new era’ is being promised by the People’s Solidarity Party. For the travel industry, time will tell.:

Future vision

The more the ice melts, the hotter Greenland becomes as a destination. Andy Round discovers the potential is huge but so are the challenges.

It’s not hard to sell Greenland as a unique travel destination. “The mountains are the oldest in the world, the island is the size of Western Europe and there are only 57,000 people living here, that’s a lot of space,” Mads Nordlund of Greenland’s Tourism and Business Council tells Destinations of the World News. “So, imagine you stroll out of town and take a left off the track, there is a good chance that it’s the first time anyone or anything has walked on that patch of land since the dinosaurs.”

Greenland in the 21st century may no longer be as busy as the Jurassic Period, but other epoch-defining changes are taking place due to climate change. Retreating ice, shrinking snows and violent storms are becoming increasingly apparent. And the inaccessible has become accessible. As more land is unveiled by warming in Greenland, there are more places to walk with the ghosts of dinosaurs.

Greenland has become a well-publicised symbol for climate change and become a major attraction as one of the final frontiers of travel. “Greenland is always featured in those books that offer 100 Places To Visit Before They Disappear,” says Nordlund. “It’s like Kilimanjaro, you can see the change taking place. People want to see it before the ice goes.”

Combined with the thawing of climate change has been a new appetite for experience tourism and increased awareness of Greenland as a destination. The result has been a doubling the number of tourists to the country from 26,410 in 1999 to 57,223 in 2008 and – credit crunch allowing – the figures could increase by 20 per cent every year.

“I think that Greenland is an emerging destination with astonishing potential in the same league as The Galapagos or Alaska,” Air Greenland’s CEO Michael Binzer tells Destinations of the World News. “Climate change may have become a unique selling point, but Greenland is the perfect experience destination offering ancient culture, giant coastline, extreme weather, incredible nature and it’s very, very eco friendly. It meets all the criteria of people who don’t want to just sit on a beach.”

The biggest growth area in Greenland’s tourism product has come from the cruise industry. The figures may be small, but the percentage increase is huge. From 10,000 cruise passengers in 2003 the numbers have almost tripled to 28,891 in 2008 again demonstrating incredible potential.

The next stage will be tough. The Greenland Cruise Association is aiming to encourage more tour companies to the region, create alliances with other destinations and develop itinerary concepts that can be sold to firms (such as historic cruises). But in a credit-crunch climate companies are not keen to take risks on unproven concepts and passengers are booking later than usual. A passenger number drop over the next 18 months is expected.

Also as industry grows there are pressing practical issues. Over a telephone line from Nuuk, the association’s Anders La Cour Vahl outlines challenges that range from the need for new environmental and security legislation to search and rescue support to the issues of what happens when 2,000 cruise passengers land at a vulnerable Greenland settlement with just 150 inhabitants.

What does happen? “We have see all sorts of things from tour groups trying to buy up entire supplies from a settlement shop when the next supply ship is not for six months. Then there are the hundreds of on-shore tourists wandering in and out of people’s homes without asking or perhaps visitors spending nothing in the communities they visit. In the past we have seen examples of locals begging or tourists simply being badly ripped off.”

La Cour Vahl says that what is needed is education from all sides and understanding of the opportunities tourism brings. Maturity will take time and effort. Greenland has introduced a Port Readiness Scheme that prepares villages and settlements for visitors, he says, and it is the small things that make a big difference. For example, unpredictable weather has always been a challenge to ship arrival times, but the creation of an online ‘call list’ has been revolution for communities that can prepare in advance.

“We have also seen some incredible proactive communities.” La Cour Vahl says. “We have seen coastal villages that have coordinated with cruise companies for when they will arrive and then opened up the entire town for the duration of the ship’s visit. It was a great way to welcome visitors. Everything is open to explore: the church, the police station, the museum and houses. Cultural events and souvenir sellers can also be organised in advance. One small settlement in the northwest actually radioed a passing ship and asked them over to visit. That was four years ago and now it’s a regular stop off and the whole community feels involved.”

This is particularly important. Warming has changed the traditional roles of many Greenlanders – particularly those of hunters – and it is important that people continue to feel valued and that their skills have place in a brave new world of tourism, says Nordlund.

“There is a need for education and understanding so that people can learn to be self sufficient,” he says. “That is why we have programmes on an ongoing basis to directly help schools.” It’s a sentiment shared by La Cour Vahl. “We don’t want to be like Alaska that is buzzing during the peak months and then deserted in the winter.”

Another key concern of the travel industry is the island’s infrastructure. There are no roads outside of the towns and villages and supplies have to be brought in by air or sea. They are completely dependant on the weather.

“There are 18 to 23 days in a years when we just can’t operate,” says Air Greenland’s Binzer. “There will always be the possibility of fog, snow, freezing, all type of weather, but climate change has made it more unpredictable and volatile. When I was young the weather was stable.”

For Air Greenland, the challenge is to create more critical mass for the future. The airline’s five-year plan is to grow by five per cent annually to 2012. Atlantic passengers to and from Greenland have already increased from 65,000 in 1999 to an anticipated 112,000 this year (total flights including domestic were four times that figure in 2008). Within four years the aim is to step up the number of weekly Atlantic flights from 12 to 18 during the high season between mid June and August.

But developing Greenland’s travel industry holistically is critical. “The whole food chain from flights, airports, transport and hotels has to be developed as part of a joint plan as was the case in Iceland in the 1970s and ’80s,” says Binzer.

There is a long way to go. Hotel standardisation is an important consideration, short runways need to be improved, airports brought up to international standards, hotels need to be improved and educational programmes stepped up. Visitors to Greenland pay top dollar to visit the remote island and expect a premium level of service that may not be available in remote areas.

However, this means for early adopters there are opportunities as well. Hotel Arctic, for example, has just added a 120-delegate conference centre to cater for a future boom in meeting and conference business. The hotel already has ‘designer’ hotel igloos overlooking the UNESCO heritage site of Disko. Work on 18 more is set to start this year.

The hotel’s general manager Erik Bjerregaard is also a key member of Greenland’s hotel association. “I don’t expect dramatic changes within the hospitality industry here in the near future nor do I expect international chains entering the market because the turnover is too small,” he says in an email.

“However, the major changes I would like to see is to be able to adjust to changing demand and not be so dependent on a foreign workforce such as for chefs or waiters.” Reductions in the price of hotel industry electricity to the same levels as that of the fishing industry and a cut in amount of taxation on alcohol are two other issues Bjerregaard would like to see addressed.

But what about the credit crunch? Anecdotal evidence suggests bookings could be down 20 per cent in the south of Greenland and as much as 40 per cent in the north. “We expect a drop this year in bed nights during July and August,” says Bjerregaard. “People are booking later to see if they can save,” adds Nordlund. “The full impact of the crisis still has to be seen but a lot of people who want to come to Greenland are obviously asking themselves if they can afford it this year.”

Over at Air Greenland, the airline’s CEO Binzer sees the global context. “This year is tough for us as it is for all airlines. We face the challenge that it is expensive to travel to Greenland.” It’s a blessing and a curse. “Greenland will always be exotic and never be as easy to reach as other destinations. That’s the attraction and challenge.”

Where there’s a will…

New infrastructure changes to accommodate Greenland’s growth in tourism are reliant on a travel-oriented new political will.

But will it happen? After kicking out 30 years of Social Democrat rule last month, the leader of the ruling People’s Solidarity Party Kuupik Kleist has promised a hands-off approach to government-owned firms saying this “this is something best left to the management of companies”.

There is optimism. Jesper Kunuk Egede of Greenland Travel tells Destinations of the World New: “I think that it will become easier for companies to operate without interference from the government and Greenland will become a country that opens up more to the outside.”

“Following the elections I think Greenland will become more internationally focused and there will be better long-term planning concerning infrastructure,” says Erik Bjerregaard of Greenland’s Hotel Arctic in Illulissat.”

The island, which is a Danish province, also recently voted for plans to give their government more powers from Denmark. Last month the country moved from home rule to self-governance – effectively meaning Greenlanders can decide on most island issues apart from foreign affairs and defence.

“The new powers are not related to tourism and travel but the level of global awareness that we experience as a result of journalists covering the handover around the world is impossible to calculate,” says Greenland Tourism Mads Nordlund.

It’s a sentiment shared by the Cruise Association’s Anders La Cour Vahl. “There has already been great world interest in climate change and it’s impact on Greenland, but our new status should reveal the country to be more confident on the global stage.”


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