Since 2014, tourism to Greenland has increased by more than 33%. More importantly, peak tourist numbers during the summer months have increased by nearly 50% during the same time period. While the absolute numbers of tourists visiting Greenland are not particularly great, the relative impact they have can be dramatic. During the peak of the summer season, the island’s population increases by approximately one-third. This level of increased pressure on the infrastructural, economic, environmental, service, and social systems of Greenland threatens to overwhelm Greenland’s capacity to sustain the benefits of tourism without suffering major systemic failure – failure that could ruin Greenland’s environment, compromise its economy, and alienate its population.
Greenland is at a transitional moment in its tourism development. Between global travel trends and anticipated major expansion of transportation connectivity, the trajectory of tourism growth in Greenland is clear. However, the primary part of the expansion curve remains in the future. This combination marks the critical opportunity to prepare for tourism’s expansion, ensuring that tourists and their benefits can be received sustainably and within the Greenland’s capacities.
Iceland’s Experience
Greenland’s tourism trends and challenges in many ways mirror those experienced in Iceland since the rapid expansion of its tourism economy. Since 2010, the number of tourists visiting Iceland has grown by nearly 500% to well over two million. During the peak summer months, one in every four people in Iceland is a tourist. While tourism is largely responsible to reversing the effects of the 2008 economic crisis in Iceland, it has placed incredible strain on Icelandic society, environments, and infrastructure.
To address this strain and transition Iceland’s tourism economy into a sustainable state, Iceland’s Ministry of Industry and Innovation commissioned a multi-sector sustainable capacity assessment system. Based on an integrated indicator and threshold framework, this system accounts for the positive and negative impacts tourism has on a comprehensive collection of Icelandic economic, social, and environmental sectors (e.g., employment, housing, transportation, water and waste, healthcare, emergency services, environmental quality, resident sentiment, tourist experiences, etc.). Based on current and projected tourism pressures, this assessment system is being used to direct investment and policy toward the most critical constraints to Iceland’s sustainable capacity for tourism.
In addition to the national-level sustainable capacity assessment, Iceland has developed a diverse and robust spectrum of policies, regulations, communication strategies, and coordinating mechanisms to check the “overtourism” pressures being experienced in some areas of the country and to more fully distribute benefits to areas that are experiencing comparative “undertourism.” However, this has only taken place after the tourism boom was well underway. It is safe to say that Icelandic authorities were largely unprepared for the rapid increase in tourism even though efforts of tourism policy making can be traced to the early 1970s. The story of tourism development was for a long time a story of entrepreneurs largely unconstrained by regulation or a shared vision of how to build Iceland up as a destination. Icelandic authorities did neither realize the potentials or the challenges of tourism development. This background to the current buzz around tourism in Iceland can serve as an important example to learn from.
Effective start/end date01/04/201931/08/2019