NUUK, Greenland

Who holds the red button?

“I usually say that things in the Arctic grow slowly. They have to so that they become strong enough to live here. And tourism in Greenland should also grow slowly…It should be us who develop it”

Case Area

Nuuk, capital of Greenland, is situated on the southwest coast of the country at the mouth of the Nuuk fjord, the second largest fjord system in the world and about 240 km south of the Arctic Circle. The town hosts a third of Greenland’s entire population, and is currently expanding. Aside from being a popular tourist destination, the town of Nuuk hosts many other economic activities. The headquarters of the central administration as well as many engineering, mining, fisheries and shipping companies are located there, as well as the University of Greenland and several other educational institutions. 

Cruise Situation

Cruise tourism represents about a third of foreign visitors to Greenland. The country in itself is an ideal destination for cruise tourism, as all towns and many attractions are adjacent to water, either on the coast or on the shores of fjords. Nuuk does not face the severe problems caused by cruise tourism compared to the small communities that also attract large numbers of cruise tourists. The town has more space and more resources to spread out and profit from cruise tourism. Nuuk is also visited by many land-based tourists, and is not solely dependent on cruise tourism. Therefore, Nuuk is an atypical Arctic cruise destination. Despite these advantages, the debates and discussions on cruise tourism in Nuuk still highlight important issues. Most importantly, who holds the power to govern, control and limit cruise tourism. In other words, who holds the ‘red button’ that can be pushed to manage cruise tourism?

Case Issues

The key issue is what segment of the cruise tourism market should be prioritized. Some stakeholders prefer mass cruise tourism in larger ships, while others would like to focus on smaller expedition cruises. However, there is a consensus that more expensive cruises should be prioritized as these cruises have most economic benefit for the destination.

There is currently a national debate about how to regulate cruise tourism, which focuses especially on the taxes and fees paid by cruise ships visiting Greenlandic harbors. This will have a big impact on how cruise is managed in the future.

There are no turn-around cruises to Nuuk at the moment, which somewhat limits the number of tourists. However, this situation may change after the new international airport opens in 2024. This new airport allows direct international flights to come into Nuuk, and thus bigger groups of visitors will be able to travel. Nuuk’s harbor has space for large cruise ships to come in, yet at the same time there is chaos and competition for quay space at the harbor, especially during the busy cruise season. With the number of cruise tourists increasing, there are increasing concerns for infrastructural clashes with other harbor activities, most notably cargo shipping and fishery. Additionally, there are emerging issues concerning poor and user-unfriendly signage, and the potential shortage of facilities and personnel to host the growing number of tourists. Some stakeholders are also concerned about the environmental impact of cruise tourism. 

[1] Turn-around means that, on the same day, cruises drop off one group of tourists in the harbor and take another group with them on their return journey. This increases the tourist capacity significantly. Turn-around port/harbour is where the cruise trip starts or ends (the cruise ship calls at other ports between the turn-around ports). It is attractive to be a turn-around port because the cruise tourists may stay longer at these destinations before or after the cruise trip

Local solutions

The study of the Nuuk area show that no one holds the solution to ‘fix’ cruise tourism – nor do different parties and organizations agree on what, if anything, constitutes the main problem and how to solve it. Some expect the national government to act, for instance regarding the expansion of the harbor; others see Visit Greenland as leading on the development of a broader tourism strategy, while the municipality is seen as important in terms of local business development and infrastructure. However, most agree that uncontrolled growth is unsustainable and that more transparency, more knowledge and more collaboration across public, private and civic actors is needed to regulate cruise tourism. 

Conclusion and Take-Away

Despite the variety of problems and issues, the citizens of Nuuk also profit from the developments that the increase in cruise tourism instigates. It creates employment opportunities and attracts resources that improve their quality of life. Therefore, debates on this issue focus on what type of cruise tourism should be developed and who should regulate this process. There are many different views on how responsibilities should be distributed what parties should be in charge, ranging from the national government and municipality to tourist organizations like Visit Greenland. This necessitates much closer collaboration within the town’s broader community, in order to incorporate cruise tourism into the economic, environmental and socially sustainable development of Nuuk.