Here is a letter from Hjörtur Smárason, the new managing director at Visit Greenland about how the country aims to become one of the world’s leading destinations in sustainable tourism.
I have had a strong connection to Greenland for a long time. I first came here when I was only 14 years old. This was with a group of young people from the small village of Bildudalur in Iceland, who were on a 10-day visit to its ‘twin town’ of Kulusuk. Since then, I have been to Greenland countless times – both privately and in connection with the development of tourism and marketing. Over the last 15 years I have worked with tourism development, place branding and crisis management – not only in Iceland, but in all of the Nordic countries, in Northern Europe, the Balkans, Russia, Nepal, the Middle East and in several countries in Africa. And now again in Greenland.
This is an exciting time in the development of Greenland’s tourism, in which we must build up a strong brand for Greenland within adventure tourism, and aim to become one of the world’s leading destinations in sustainable tourism. It’s a journey that I’m looking forward to being a part of.
Set target of 100,000 tourists already for 2022
Tourism has suffered during the COVID-19 crisis and the outlook for 2021 is not good. It is still unclear when the borders will open and with which restrictions. Tourists are not necessarily going to arrive the same day as the borders open, and given that the average time between booking and travel is more than 90 days, it is now that we must be able to clearly state our reopening strategy. Fortunately, all hope is not lost yet.
One of the most important things in times of crisis is to understand the impact that it has on people’s behaviour. When tourism starts again, it will not be the same as it was before. Of course, we do not know exactly how it will change, but studies suggest that tourists will look towards more isolated destinations. Destinations where there are limited numbers of people. Destinations that have kept a good handle on things during the Covid crisis. Destinations where they can feel safe. Destinations like Greenland.
This gives Greenland an advantage which can be exploited. We need to understand who thinks like this, how we can reach them – and we need to get them to Greenland so that we can get tourism up and running, people in work and businesses back on track again. Although it is expected that tourism globally will take some years to recover from Covid, there is no reason for Greenland to follow the trend. Greenland has never been and never will be an ordinary country. We have an advantage that lies in our isolation, our mighty wilderness and our few people. An advantage that we must exploit in order to get back on our feet quickly – and this will only be our first step.
Hoist the sails
The new airports will open up exciting new opportunities for the development of destinations and their tourism products. A development that creates a number of new opportunities to create your own work in your hometown based on the local culture and local sights. But building an airport is not enough. They need to be marketed, so that customers use them.
Customers who can help create a basis for more frequent travel and more connections, as well as cheaper travel both to and from the country. Tourism can create a solid basis for better infrastructure and transport in the country, better service in restaurants and on experiences for both guests and locals – and at the same time be the initiative to create an economic basis for the preservation of our living dog sledding culture, gripping drum dancers and skilled handicraft artists.
Greenland is in a tailwind. We cannot feel it because of Covid, but the tailwind began with the media attention that Greenland got because of Trump's offer to buy it, and will continue with the exposure that is on its way through international TV series, films and sports events. This international attention is backed by local artists and athletes, who reach far beyond Greenland’s borders – like the author Niviaq Korneliussen and the sisters Chemnitz Berthelsen. Every new airline, hotel chain or other major player in the tourist market, represents a powerful marketing channel, with visibility both to their customers and through the right sales channels. Icelandair's acquisition of Air Iceland Connect is the first change in the airline connections to Greenland, and makes Greenland’s destinations visible on all of Icelandair’s sales channels. It makes it possible to book a continuous flight from New York to Nuuk, London to Kulusuk, Los Angeles to Ilulissat or Berlin to Narsarsuaq, with only one stopover in Keflavik. This change alone can have a significant impact on tourism to Greenland, and we must be ready.
Overtourism is often misunderstood
Overtourism is one of the biggest concerns regarding growth in the tourism sector. Iceland experienced this in the first years of its tourism boom. The most interesting, and often misunderstood, thing about overtourism is that it generally does not occur because there are too many tourists on a national scale, but because tourists clump together regionally when destinations, such as Iceland was, are not prepared to receive them and to distribute them around the country. That’s why overtourism was a much bigger issue in Iceland when there were just over a million tourists, than they were just before Covid hit with twice as many. The infrastructure had caught up with the number of tourists.
There is enough space in Iceland, even though the island is only a quarter of the size of the ice-free part of Greenland, so it is simply about tourists being distributed properly. If we want to avoid falling into the same traps in Greenland, it is therefore crucial that we develop the infrastructure quickly and thoroughly enough – not only with the airports, but also with investments in hotels, experiences, trails and marked routes, product development as well as the training of our local talents, including in language skills and service-oriented thinking. We must create sustainable growth, not only in relation to the fragile nature, but also in relation to the sensitive settlements and the Greenlandic labour market.
We should prepare for a growth of 25% per year from 2023 – not necessarily because this should be the goal – but because we will be able to manage a growth of 20%, if we prepare for a growth of 25%. We cannot do this if we only prepare for a growth of 5%. A new cruise line, airline or even simply a new air route – if, for example, Air Greenland starts direct flights to the US or to Canada – can mean a growth of 10-20% in one jump. It does not take many individuals to create significant growth, if we are starting with the number of tourists that we have right now. It is also much easier to attract investors to build the missing infrastructure in places where we see a growth of 20-25%, than it is with 3-5% growth. It is therefore important that all relevant actors – the government and ministries, as well as municipalities and the industry itself – ensure that there is investment in this development – of course through marketing, but also through education, innovation and local infrastructure.
In order to better manage growth, we also need to steer it as much as we can. The destinations that are already struggling with potential overtourism still market themselves, but with a focus on spreading the amount of guests both over the year and across the region, to avoid the tipping point. This means that we must increase winter tourism and tourism during the shoulder seasons so that all the infrastructure that exists is better utilised. At the same time, we must develop the different regional destinations and emphasise the strengths and specialties that each destination has. This requires targeted, strategic and well-thought-out marketing and branding work.
It is now
Now is the time for us to start preparing. We need to calculate different scenarios within tourism for the next ten years and ensure that we are always one step ahead of developments. In this way, we will ensure the best results for the tourism industry in Greenland, for investors and the local population. As an example, it was a strong strategy which ensured that tourism grew from approx. 150,000 to 300,000 arrivals per year in just three years, when a new airport was built in the Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. The same thing happened in Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe with a new airport. But this growth does not come by itself. The important thing is that we lead the growth ourselves, control which guests come (and when and where they come) through targeted marketing, and ensure that our product range and infrastructure is ready to receive these guests. In this way, we can best handle growth without the threat of growing pains. Greenland is a unique destination with huge potential for tourism and the associated jobs and economic development. With the establishment of the new airports, the next few years will be crucial to Greenland’s success in defining itself as one of the world’s most exciting and sustainable adventure destinations. We must strengthen Greenland’s image as a sustainable country – an image that not only benefits the travel industry, but also the export of fish, shrimp, skins, design and other Greenlandic products. There is a strong team of specialists within Visit Greenland who are already working on the case, and I look forward to talking to the industry about how we can best develop Greenland in the future.