Responsible tourism in Greenland

Small, slow and smart – Greenland’s approach to developing tourism as a warming climate makes it more accessible is very sensible. This land of ice and snow often draws comparisons with Iceland for obvious reasons, but it has watched that country’s struggles with over-popularity and there appears to be a determination to avoid making the same mistakes here.

“Tourism businesses such as ours have a very strong connection with the Greenland tourism board to not follow the same pattern as Iceland a few decades ago,” advises Alex Morris from our partner Exodus Travels. “They are extremely keen, as are we, to create a more sustainable and educational way of travel to Greenland.”

Which is the reason why small ship expedition cruises are so welcome here. This type of holiday has less of a negative impact as ships don’t overwhelm ports with large numbers of tourists.

Furthermore, small ship passengers typically stay longer, spend more in local communities and tend to be more clued up about environmental and cultural issues in a destination. Indeed, quite a few of them will have read this page before they travel as part of their preparations. If that’s you, then hi!

Whether tourism can ever be completely sustainable is debatable, given the carbon emissions involved and the inevitable impacts on local communities and ecosystems. But it can definitely be responsible. And in Greenland, the opportunities are as big as the risks.

Environment & wildlife

How is the climate crisis affecting Greenland?

Every country will be affected by the climate crisis in different ways, some to a greater degree than others. But Greenland is particularly exposed. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising at twice as fast a rate as they are elsewhere on the planet. Around 80 percent of Greenland is covered by a huge sheet of ice, and in 2021, rain fell on the ice – for the first time in recorded history. As that ice melts away, it will affect sea levels and coastal communities globally. But it will also have profound effects in Greenland itself.

The polar bear is one of the iconic symbols of climate change and habitat loss. A retreating, less stable ice sheet means the bears will find it harder to hunt and mate. Faced with starvation, they will migrate to new areas, potentially bringing them into greater conflict with human communities.
Other Greenlandic wildlife will also be affected. Narwhals rely on ice to protect them from predators, while increased snowfall means that many parts of northern Greenland still have snow on the ground in summer. Flora and fauna species are consequently forced to delay their reproductive cycles, which in turn means young plants and animals struggle to survive the winter. Arctic foxes and musk oxen have both suffered reproductive collapse due to extreme snow levels.

Many species will be capable of changing their behaviours, just as humans will be forced to when coping with a hotter climate. Plants grow hardier. Wolves migrate. Some polar bears may find new ways to hunt, such as using glacier ice. But the question is, will they have time to adapt?

The climate crisis will also affect Greenlandic people. Retreating ice makes tourism easier, but it also makes precious metals beneath the surface tantalisingly easy to access for rapacious mining companies. At present it looks as though the Greenlandic government is wisely following a course of ‘sustainable tourism’, but there’s a lot of money in mining, and a lot of political leverage.

Traditional ways of life will likely suffer as well. Many small communities along the coast are reliant on subsistence hunting and fishing. As these practises become more difficult, it will lead to people moving towards larger urban areas in search of steady employment unless income can be found elsewhere, such as through tourism.

How you can help protect Greenland from the climate crisis
Try to make your holiday as low impact as you can, such as by avoiding internal flights in Greenland if at all possible. Our responsible cruise partners have specialist guides aboard ships capable of explaining the effects of climate change on these landscapes, their glaciers and wildlife.

“I went with absolutely zero knowledge of glacier formations and the stages of a glacier’s life cycle, but came away having learned a great deal,” continues Alex Morris. And while Exodus’s state-of-the-art Greenland cruises can carry helicopters to offer spectacular short flights, they are the most fuel-efficient in their class, also creating minimal noise pollution.

But ultimately, the most significant way you can help Greenland’s wildlife and people when it comes to the climate crisis is by making a difference back home. Switch your money away from banks and investment funds that support the exploitation of fossil fuels. Switch to green energy suppliers. Vote for politicians who take the issue seriously. And join every climate protest you can, so that your voice is heard.

Getting around in Greenland

Itís not easy to get around in Greenland. Realistically, you either need a boat, plane or pack of hardy dogs because there is a grand total of just 150km of roads in the entire country, and only about half of them are paved. That lack of connectivity is problematic when it comes to tourism, but equally it could be a saving grace, as tourism relies on infrastructure. Without roads, there are limits as to how far it can spread.

Almost everyone in Greenland bar the occasional scientific research team lives on the coast, mostly in the south west, due to sheer necessity. Getting around is usually by ferry, small boats or flying Ė snowmobiles or dog sleds, if youíre not going far. Greenland already has over a dozen airfields serving small planes, and there are two international airports planned in Ilulissat and the capital Nuuk.

But given that 80 percent of Greenland is covered by a sheet of ice, and few places in the world will be so drastically affected by a warming climate, it does feel a bit odd to come here and get around by plane given the size of the carbon footprint involved.

The Greenlandic governmentís plan to expand tourism on a sustainable footing involves spreading it to different parts of the country beyond Ilulissat. Given that building roads everywhere is practically impossible, that unfortunately means a lot more carbon emissions from short haul flights which is not sustainable. But the government is clearly banking on the idea that itís more sustainable than the alternative form of economic growth proposed by some: mining.
How to get around more sustainably in Greenland
Responsible small ship cruises are the best way to get around Greenland – convenient, satisfying and much more environmentally friendly than flying.

If you fly to Greenland and would like to visit more than one place, then look into getting around by ferry. The Sarfak Ittuq service links many towns between south and north Greenland between March and January. It’s a great way to meet Greenlanders, as mostly local people use the service – wander up to the deck and you might even see whales. The ferry has a restaurant, and there are cabins available for overnight journeys.

Mining in Greenland

Mining is a thorny issue in Greenland. In a country where much of the landscape is buried beneath a sheet of ice, there aren’t many options when it comes to industry. Agriculture is limited because there’s so little suitable land and the growing season so limited. There are hunting and fishing, both of which need to be kept at sustainable levels. There is tourism… and then there is the exploitation of natural resources – mining for oil and minerals such as uranium.

When Greenlandic prime minister Mette Frederiksen dismissed Donald Trump’s suggestion that the USA could buy Greenland, he didn’t take it very well: “I thought that the prime minister’s statement that it was absurd, that it was an absurd idea was nasty. I thought it was an inappropriate statement. All she had to do is say no, we wouldn't be interested.”

This political spat in 2019 brought into sharp focus a debate that has been pulling Greenlanders apart for some years now – whether to develop mining on the island.

The US Geological Survey estimates that Greenland possesses one of the world’s largest undeveloped deposits of rare earth metals, which are used in everything from electric car batteries to wind turbines to computer screens. There are also substantial deposits of the nuclear fuel uranium. Naturally, there are plenty of mining companies that would love to plunder this treasure, but in 2021 Greenland banned mining as part of its efforts to fight the climate crisis.

Public opinion on the subject in Greenland is split between those who favour mining for the jobs and money it will bring in, and those who are concerned about the environmental damage that will likely be wreaked. The mining industry is not exactly renowned for the cleanliness of its operations.

What you can do
As a form of economic development, tourism may not promise the abundant riches that mining does, but in terms of the environment it is infinitely preferable, and many Greenlanders are acutely aware of that fact. People here are justly proud of their country’s raw and beautiful landscapes and few relish the thought of it being churned up.

Travel with a responsible tour operator and they will use local businesses wherever possible, while also helping you to experience authentic Greenlandic culture. That way your holiday will have a tangible economic benefit to communities, and hopefully help to convince those currently in favour of mining that tourism is a viable alternative to pursue.

People & culture

Championing Indigenous culture in Greenland

Greenland is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, with just over 50,000 people living mostly on the southwest coast of this vast island. Indigenous Inuit people make up 90 percent of the population, and Greenland’s pursuit of sustainable tourism aims to preserve and promote a culture thousands of years in the shaping.

Greenland tourism usually focuses on the headline attractions: icebergs, whales, polar bears. But good tourism can’t just rely on the spectacular stuff (wows). It needs some plain interesting stuff (mmms) as well.

In Greenland, the ‘mmms’ come courtesy of six visitor centres, each in a different region and addressing a different theme. The first of these to open was the Ilulissat Icefjord Centre on the west coast which, to be fair, definitely has plenty of wow factor too. The twisted, triangular structure with a rooftop viewing platform is just as striking as the gigantic icebergs the exhibitions inside explore.

The visitor centre in Qaqortoq considers the history of Nordic settlement in Greenland and the challenges of Arctic agriculture, while the centre in Sisimiut looks at Inuit hunting around this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Indigenous people in Greenland continue to face many difficulties. Rates of alcoholism and suicide are high, while traditional skills, particularly those usually performed by women, such as flensing whale blubber and sewing seal skins, are at risk of dying out as salaried employment becomes more common.

How to support Indigenous culture in Greenland
Read up before coming about the places you’ll be visiting, and appreciate that there is a rich, ancient culture here beyond the icebergs and the wildlife.

“On my voyage we visited the village of Aappilattoq where we enjoyed a talk by a local hunting guide, traditional Greenlandic music and a choir service in their church,” says Alex Morris. "We had the freedom to explore at our own pace and purchase locally made crafts, and we even organised a football match between villagers and our crew/passengers!”

Most people who visit Greenland arrive aboard a cruise vessel, simply because it’s near impossible to get around overland. And many of those cruises visit Indigenous communities rarely or not at all. Look for trips that take you ashore to Greenlandic communities and ask your tour operator about cultural activities available in those places – preferably run by local people themselves so that have a say in how they’re organised. Is there a particular type of handicraft made, such as tupilaks – small carved figurines said to be imbued with magical powers. Are there any locally run restaurants?

While visiting Greenland you may be able to watch a dog-sled race or learn how to fish through a hole carved in the ice. You can purchase products and garments lined with sustainably sourced seal skin. And don’t miss Greenland’s fascinating visitor centres which are now springing up around the country. It’s always good to have a few mmms to go with your wows.

Is hunting legal in Greenland?

Many Greenlandic Inuit communities continue to hunt animals such as musk oxen, caribou, seals and whales. Visiting coastal communities, you’ll often see skins drying on racks and you may be offered dishes such as mattak – raw cubes of whale skin and fat held together by cartilage. Hunting permits can also be sold to foreigners looking to bag trophies using dog sleds to pursue their prey, or even using bows and arrows, but the meat is kept by the community.

It’s actually more sustainable to have a carnivorous diet in Greenland than vegetarian or vegan. That’s because the growing season is so short that there is not a huge amount of agriculture (though the season is lengthening as the climate warms) and so most fruit and vegetables need to be imported from great distances away.

Hunting was a means of survival in this harsh, remote land – in fact, the only means of survival – for centuries. And just because it’s now easy to find packaged meat in a supermarket doesn’t mean that the act of hunting has lost any of its cultural significance.

However, there is a balance to be struck between subsistence hunting and the need to protect wildlife. Concerns among scientists that narwhal numbers are plummeting, for example, have been met with scepticism among communities who fear that reducing quotas is a first step towards banning hunting altogether.

Instead, what may happen is that hunting is pushed out of sight. Greenlanders have the legal right to kill a few humpback whales every year, after a short ban. Europeans, of course, almost drove whales to extinction, while Greenland’s Inuit people managed to hunt them sustainably for thousands of years.

But whale watching tourism is big business in Greenland, so now hunting the cetaceans is banned in the waters around the capital Nuuk. Although killing a few whales every year won’t put a serious dent in their numbers, it does have a habit of driving others away from places they don’t feel safe.

Many people may find it distasteful to see whales shot and seals skinned. But we need to recognise the cultural and economic importance of subsistence hunting to Inuit communities in Greenland. And that, when hunting goes on in the public eye, it can be monitored to ensure it’s being done sustainably and humanely.

What you can do to protect Greenland’s wildlife
When in Greenland, take part in wildlife watching tours such as heading out to see whales in Disko Bay. Supporting this kind of tourism demonstrates the value of living animals.

You may well see whale, caribou or seal on restaurant menus. There’s no obligation on you to eat it, but do be aware that it should have been hunted sustainably, and sales of meat help support communities that often have few other sources of income.

Not all forms of hunting are the same, though. Animals are not trophies, and trophy hunting is not a real sport, but a cruel game for wealthy people with a weird blood lust. Donald Trump’s sons are trophy hunters. Who’d want to be part of that club?

Greenland responsible tourism tips

Just visit. Much of Greenlandís small population is in favour of developing tourism as an industry rather than mining, so the more people who come, and spend, the stronger the argument for leaving minerals in the ground becomes. Small ship cruises are the most environmentally friendly way to see Greenland, and also the most convenient given the lack of roads. Itís rare for more than one ship to be in a harbour at a time, and with only 250 or so passengers aboard, it means communities arenít swamped with visitors during shore excursions. Many of our Greenland cruise partners also operate trips in the Antarctic (the season alternates so the vessels are in use all year-round). Where this is the case, they are often members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), which promotes good practises, training and environmental protection. We strongly recommend travelling with operators that are members of IAATO, so do ask when making enquiries. Minimise the plastic you bring with you, such as packaging. Recycling facilities in Greenland are very limited to those in more populated countries. Keep an open mind about hunting. In Greenland subsistence hunting of seals, musk oxen and reindeer has been a way of life for hundreds of years, and is the only way that some communities are able to earn a regular income. Eating meat can actually be more sustainable than a plant-based diet in Greenland. Reindeer, musk ox and seal are all often wild caught and they are not endangered here, whereas fresh fruit and vegetables often need to be imported, meaning they have a substantial carbon footprint. Purchasing locally made handicrafts can also help sustain to sustain local indigenous communities that have few employment opportunities. It also helps to preserve skills that have been passed down through generations. Ask about cultural activities you can do on land, ideally those organised and run by local people. You might attend a church choir service, learn how a dog sledding kennels operates, tour an ancient Viking settlement with a local guide, or take a mountain bike tour around the fjords. All of which help create employment and spread income from tourism. Keep a safe, respectful distance from any wildlife. Obviously your tour operator will ensure youíre not getting anywhere close to polar bears, but birds, and smaller animals, can become nervous when people get too close which can affect their behaviour and even their breeding patterns. Much of Greenland remains complete, pristine wilderness. Help keep it that way by following instructions from guides when on land, always sticking to marked trails when hiking, and following Leave No Trace principles.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Denis Burdin] [How is the climate crisis affecting Greenland?: Press service of PJSC "Gazprom Neft"] [Getting around in Greenland: Visit Greenland] [Is hunting legal in Greenland?: Kitty Terwolbeck]