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Tourism in West Greenland: A tale of two towns

Tourism in West Greenland: A tale of two towns

(photo courtesy of Kayak North)

In the tourist industry, Greenland is marketed as one of the planet’s most exotic destinations. Its USPs (“unique selling points”, in industry-speak) are closely linked to the country’s ‘authentic’ Arctic environment, a feature that is heavily capitalised upon by both the Greenland tourist board and local and foreign tour operators organising trips there. Visit Greenland, the state-run tourist board, launched its promotional campaign ‘“The Big Arctic Five”:uk.bigarcticfive.com’ in 2012. As part of this, five experiences unique to the Arctic are sold as major draws to the country. Together, dog-sledding, northern lights, ice and snow, pioneering people and whale-watching are all emphasised as Arctic ‘musts’. Bar the absence of polar bears, the Big Arctic Five as a consumed experience is said to embody what an Arctic adventure would involve for many visitors to Greenland.

Nowhere in Greenland is tourism promoted more than in Ilulissat, the country’s third largest town. Located in Disko Bay on the country’s western coast, Ilulissat is often touted as the jewel in Greenland’s crown. It benefits from being close in proximity to Ilulissat Kangerlua, a fjord with a large glacier that frequently scatters icebergs of varying sizes into the town’s coastal waters. This fact led to the area being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. The engaging spectacle of iceberg calving is a significant draw for tourists. Along with a range of hotels and B&Bs, a well-established tourist office, hiking opportunities and husky experiences, it is not difficult to see how this part of Greenland has become a major draw for tourists.

Whilst tourism may be flourishing in Ilulissat, the story is not the same for other nearby towns. Some 90km southwest of Ilulissat is Aasiaat, a town roughly two-thirds its size. Here, one observes a marked difference in tourism’s aura. In stark contrast to the prominent World of Greenland tourist office in Ilulissat, here when one follows a visitor map to ‘Tourist Office’, one is met by a shed-like building, derelict and boarded-up. Accommodation options are sparse, the Seamen’s House – a hotel whose heritage is associated with the Danish Seamen’s Mission – is the only real option for visitors. The ‘Arctic credentials’ which Ilulissat proffers are rather less pronounced here. Look out into the bay during the summer months and only a smattering of icebergs can be made out in the distance. The cacophony of howling husky dogs are fewer and less raucous than those echoing around Aasiaat’s larger, northern neighbour. Clearly, this town will struggle to compete when it comes to icebergs and dog-sledding experiences. Nevertheless, for some, Aasiaat possesses a latent tourism potential that could be effectively channeled if more focus were put on the activities the town excels at: namely, kayaking and whale-watching.

The waters surrounding Aasiaat seem tailor-made for kayaking, a fact which company Kayak North are keen to utilise. After only a few kilometres of paddling offshore, the hum of the town’s habour subsides and the colourful houses hugging the coastline are out of view. Soon enough you are floating amidst a remote landscape, a fjorded archipelago that alluringly melds the harsh, jagged edges of barren terrain with the wavy suppleness of the ocean’s ebb-and-flow. The archipelago’s layout has something of a labyrinthine quality: it is surprisingly easy to find yourself lost when navigating between islands of varying sizes. This can create a real sense of adventure for tourists. However, what sets the Aasiaat kayak experience apart is the frequency of whale sightings. According to Søren Nikolaj Sørensen of Kayak North, during the summer months whales are an almost omnipresent sight around the archipelago. Paddlers are not only likely to witness pods of whales from a distance but might also find themselves paddling within metres of these enigmatic leviathans. As cities such as Tromsø (Norway) and towns such as Húsavík (Iceland) are now well aware of, these are attractive experiences which could fit well into a tourism strategy,* Sørenson’s marketing strategy is simple: if you want to kayak with whales, come to Aasiaat.

There are signs that Aasiaat’s tourism sector is slowly developing. Kayak bookings for the 2015 season are starting to fill out and a ten-room extension of the Seaman’s House is nearing completion. Of course with greater tourist numbers come certain challenges. Not least the ethical implications should whale-watching tours overcrowd the bay, potentially causing deleterious impacts to local whale populations. There is also the question of how to maintain a USP centred on remote wilderness when the track becomes increasingly ‘beaten’. Currently tourist numbers are low enough that such concerns aren’t so relevant to Aasiaat. Nevertheless, should it seek to enhance its tourism industry, these are certainly important long-term considerations. While the town is unlikely to topple Ilulissat off its perch as Greenland’s number one tourist destination, if towns such as Aasiaat can focus marketing attention on their particular strengths, tourism should be able to flourish concomitantly between Greenland’s many, and often disparate and remote, settlements.

*Arctic Encounters researchers Simone Abram, Britt Kramvig, Berit Kristoffersen and Roger Norum are currently conducting fieldwork on whalewatching in Norway and Iceland, and will publish some of their findings in volume entitled ‘ Tourism and the Anthropocene’, edited by Edward Hujbens and Martin Gren and to be published with Routledge next year.


William Davies
Sustainability Research Institute
School of Earth and Environment
University of Leeds
geo3wd [at] leeds.ac.uk

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