Ready or not, Greenland is poised to see a rise in cruise ship tourism

ANALYSIS: Cruise tourism swells in Greenland, but benefits to local communities are often limited.

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A cruise ship lies in port in Ilulissat, Greenland. (Algkalv / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this month I attended a wedding in the main church in Ilulissat on Greenland’s west coast, the Zionskirke.

I was not invited, I just tiptoed into the small building where the very churchy but festive celebration of a new marriage was well underway. As is custom, the bride wore the exceedingly colorful national dress of Greenland; sealskin kamiks, sealskin pants, elaborate pearly embroidery and so forth. The priest — a woman — led the proceedings with tangible enthusiasm, psalms and sermon all unfolding in Greenlandic.

I sneaked into one of the back pews and soon noticed a relatively large number of other guests who were not invited either. Like me they sat in the back. Like me they had arrived in Ilulissat the same morning on one of the three shiny cruise-ships that were now anchored just outside the harbor. Busy rubber zodiacs brought tourists to and fro the entire day. Ilulissat — a town of some 4,900 inhabitants — had more than 600 guests that Sunday; not unusual in peak season. Ilulissat is home of the famous Ilulissat Icefjord at the bottom of which lies the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier; the fastest, biggest and most spectacular iceberg-producing glacier this side of planet. The Ilulissat Icefjord is a UNESCO World Heritage-site and the main never-to-be-missed goal of all cruise ships plying Greenlandic waters.

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I wondered if the bride and her groom managed to make any sense of — or perhaps to ignore — the foreign guests in the church, none of whom probably understood a word of what was said or sung; perhaps except for the very moment when the bride gave her loud and unequivocal “aap” — yes in Greenlandic. The tourists in their heavy hiking boots and far too much colorful polar gear for a summer day send equally clear messages that they were only attending since they had nothing better to do.

The Zionskirke in Ilulissat is from 1779, beautiful and one of very few basic tourist attractions in Ilulissat besides the Icefjord. In the back pews people were whispering in German and French while a group from Asia kept watch in silence. Some looked as if they had been there from the beginning; others drifted in and soon left again, perhaps to hit the small Ilulissat City Museum a few hundred meters up the road.

Uniting of us uninvited guests was the fact that we were only in town on a speedy one-day visit. The church was a coincidental way to pass time between our tours to the Icefjord and the icebergs, the whale sightings and other attractions, but in the process we had become part and parcel of a crucially important day in the life of two local families who hadn’t asked for it.

A few hours later I encountered another local family who were in the middle of a casual Sunday picnic in the cliffy hillsides up close by the old cemetery. They were exceedingly hospitable and asked me to dig into a large frying pan steaming over a smoky bonfire. On offer was seal and minke whale, shot and killed by the head of the family, also in attendance. Groups of tourists were milling about on their hunt for the once-in-lifetime shot of the Icefjord.

In the smoke from the fire and while the chef added tough biscuits to the meat, onions and potatoes, I asked if all these tourists didn’t seem to these locals a complete pain in the neck? A rogue and uncouth disturbance on an otherwise peaceful and private family occasion?

The answer came swiftly, a beautifully diplomatic yet inviting response, delivered by one of the younger women: “We have got used to them,” she said softly, leaving me to fathom the depth of that.

The smallest settlements

I was lecturing on board one of the cruise ships. I have done this before and also taken part when large groups of tourists were led ashore to some of the very small settlements in Greenland. Niaqornat for instance, population 60 and shrinking, has many visitors. Seen through the prism of the tourism industry this is a classic, picturesque settlement; yellow lengths of Greenland shark drying on wooden scaffolding before it is fed to the dogs and all of it within comfortable cruising distance from Ilulissat, the mother of all Greenlandic cruise destinations.

On each of these trips I speculate when and if the locals — and in particular those who will never earn anything directly from the tourists — will tire of all these visitor and what will happen then? The cruise operators employ few Greenlanders and cruise tourists don’t spend much money ashore (all meals are eaten on board, all nights spend in the cabins), so benefits to the local communities are limited. The government in Nuuk, the capital, promotes cruise tourism as a welcome means of badly needed growth in Greenland, but it is not known what the fishermen, the local teachers or the mechanic down on the harbor thinks about the ever-growing influx of short-term foreigners in their self-inflating life vests.

More on their way from the U.S.

What we do know is that more cruise ships are on their way — also probably from the U.S. At sea on the way from Ilulissat to Greenland’s international airport in Kangerlussuaq I had a talk with Vinod Gupta, owner of the travel agency “Across the Globe Tours” in Chicago. He specializes in travels to places like Patagonia, the Himalayas, the Galapagos, Antarctica etc. He and his wife were researching Greenland as a potential destination for their customers. In Ilulissat we had just been happily emerged in close and lengthy encounters with an unusually large group of humpback whales snorting and singing between sunlit icebergs as if they were paid for it. Kangia, the Ilulissat Icefjord, had once again left a group of tourist gasping for air: “I feel like I have seen the handiwork of God,” as one put it.

Vinod Gupta told me that he would most likely be able to sell a nice, large number of trips to Greenland to the 15,000 people he has listed in his customer base.

“We have fine connections from Chicago to Reykjavik in Iceland and only a couple of hours from there to Kangerlussuaq. Also the time difference between the US and Greenland is not too bad and Greenland is not expensive compared to many popular destinations,” he told me.

He was now contemplating chartering an entire cruise ship only for his own clients and he had also identified two prime target groups for other travels to Greenland. First, he pointed to the many private companies in the U.S. which send their staff on team building trips. Then he talked honeymooners: “Greenland would be cheap for many newly-weds who would otherwise buy expensive flights to Tahiti or Honolulu,” he said. “Greenland is perfect for a seven-day get-a-away from the US.”

Gupta told me how he has previously chartered a trip along the entire Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing and how he has organized team-building trips for U.S. companies in tough mountain terrain in the former Soviet republics. Greenland should be a piece of cake.

Twenty-eight new cruise ships

Vinod Gupta is not the only one with Greenland plans. Twenty-eight new ice-strengthened cruise ships are presently on order at shipyards around the world. The Norwegian cruise operator Hurtigruten which already does cruises in Greenland, is talking of Nuuk as potential home base for two new state-of-the-art cruise-ships that will start operating in 2019. Other operators are eyeing new opportunities in the Northwest Passage, now open for traffic in summer thanks to climate change. This would take tourists from Greenland through Baffin Bay and along Canada’s Arctic shores on icy voyages ending in the Pacific — including the possibility of polar bear sightings that would give the operators waterproof guarantees that their guests would tell friends to buy tickets for next year.

I recently read that the number of cruise tourists in Norway grew from 200,000 to 700.000 from 2000 to 2014. The tiny villages in the Norwegian fjords now have tens of thousands of visitors in the summer months — facilitated by ever bigger vessels. The larger the ship, the cheaper the tickets — and then more tourists.

The trend is not difficult to read. My prediction is that the Zionskirke in Ilulissat and anyone who wants to get married there in the future should expect a lot more visitors — whether they want them or not.

Martin Breum is a Danish journalist and author specializing in Arctic affairs. Find him at www.martinbreum.dk.