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Arctic Tourism – some lessons for the Greenlandic South

Guest post by Gestur Hovgaard, Professor at the University of Greenland.

Greenland is not only the largest island in the world, it is also the most sparsely populated country. Today more than 50% of the total population of 56000 live in the five municipal centers of Nuuk, Sisimiut, Ilulissat, Aasiat and Qaqortoq; the capital, Nuuk, has 19000 people. The Greenlandic economy is primarily based on fishing and fish processing, but there is increasing emphasis on developing industry (trade, construction, services), mining for e.g., gold, and rare earth elements and not the least tourism. Although still in its infancy, tourism grew slowly over the past few decades, save for a downturn during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A minor indication of tourism development in Greenland can be seen in Table 1, which includes national and international stays:

                      Source: own table based on numbers from stat.gl

The Arctic in general has attracted great tourist interest, but destinations are unevenly distributed. The major tourist destination of the North, Iceland, had 4,5 million foreign overnight hotels stays in 2018, and 9 million overnight stays in all accommodations land and Greenland (Icelandic Tourist Board, 2019). Greenland is not Iceland and should not be, but the contrast between Greenland and Iceland suggests some possibilities for Greenland (Jóhannesson et.al. 2022).

Tourism in Southern Greenland

South Greenland is Greenland’s smallest municipality in terms of area and population. Today there are about 6700 inhabitants in the region, which is somewhat larger than Denmark, with four smaller towns (Narsassuaq, Narsaq, Qaqortoq and Nanortalik) and 11 settlements. There is a complicated geography, with no roads between towns and villages; the sea is the “highway”, with government providing some aircraft and helicopter connections.

In 2009, the three municipalities in the southern region, Nanortalik, Narsaq and Qaqortoq, were merged into Kommune Kujalleq, with Qaqortoq as the administrative center. The amalgamation was an attempt to use the region’s limited financial and cultural resources more efficiently. Although there is skepticism about the amalgamation, the region has gained Innovation South Greenland (ISG), an organization which serves as a meeting point for business development in the region (https://www.isg.gl/kl/). In the municipality’s planning, the development of tourism into a year-round activity is a central focal point for ISG.

The first organized adventure tourism in South Greenland started back in the early 1970s, and has developed slowly over the years to the current number of operators and destination options (for an overview, see: https://visitsouthgreenland.com/all-adventures-in-south-greenland/). South Greenland has also had development in cruise tourism that roughly follows the pattern in Greenland generally (see Table 2). The Disko Bay area has been particularly important. In 2020 and 2021, no tourist ships arrived, but the expectation is that cruises level will soon resume.

South Greenlandic tourism has been in a positive development in recent years, but was slowed down by Covid-19. As we see in Table 3, South Greenland had a declining relative share of total overnight stays in Greenland, but in fact increased relatively in 2020 and 2021. A probable exSouth Greenlandic tourism has been in a positive development in recent years, but was slowed down by Covid-19. As we see in Table 3, South Greenland had a declining relative share of total overnight stays in Greenland, but in fact increased relatively in 2020 and 2021. A probable explanation is that Covid-19 made South Greenland a popular destination for domestic tourism.

Some lessons for further tourism development

There are many challenges facing Arctic tourism (Rantala 2019). In a Greenlandic context, accessibility is the central parameter for the development of tourism. The planning of three new airports is particularly important. The airports in Nuuk (the capital) and Ilulissat (in the north) are underway, while the airport in South Greenland has not yet begun. At the local level, the formation of the ISG has been an important development. There are also two tourism programs at Campus Kujalleq in Qaqortoq which provide the entire country with new skills for the industry. Further, a short tourist season, and the many tourists with more and bigger cruise–ships will bring, pressure on local communities and the environment. It is also a challenge for the industry that work is seasonal and poorly paid. There is a need for more focus on environmental and social sustainability, both locally and nationally.

References

Icelandic Tourist Board. (2019). Tourism in Iceland in figures. https://www.ferdamalastofa.is/static/files/ferdamalastofa/tolur_utgafur/january-2019.pdf

Jóhannesson, G. T.; Welling, J.; Müller D. K., Lundmark, L., Nilsson, R. O., De la Barre, S., Granås, B., Kvidal-Røvik, T., Rantala, O., Tervo-Kankare, K., Maher, P. (2022). Arctic Tourism in Times of Change. Uncertain Futures – From Overtourism to Re-staring Tourism. Nordic Council of Ministers.

Rantala, O., de la Barre, S., Granås, B., Jóhannesson, G. Þ., Müller, D. K., Saarinen, J., Tervo-Kankare, K., Maher, P., Niska M. (2019). Arctic Tourism in Times of Change – seasonality. TemaNord 2019:528.

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