With limited flight routes and iceberg-dense waters, getting to Greenland is an adventure within itself—but a new infrastructure boost may change that. The Arctic island, currently accessible via flights from Denmark and Iceland, is renovating airports in two of its main tourist hubs to attract nonstop international flights from destinations like Europe, the United Kingdom, and North America. Officials anticipate construction will be complete by late 2023, which means Ilulissat (in northwest Greenland) and Nuuk (in southwest Greenland) could have nonstop international and even transatlantic flights within the next few years.
Aviation growth is vital if Greenland wants to make tourism one of its three economic pillars (alongside fishing and mining, according to the Arctic Institute). Currently, almost half of Greenland’s 104,000 annual visitors arrive by cruise ship from places like Iceland and Canada. This drives solid profit for local tour operators, shops, and restaurants, although land-based travelers who eat, sleep, and play on the ground—not a ship—are a bigger boon for business.
That’s why Greenland is upping its air travel game; the flight routes currently in place are nothing short of a headache. Today, Greenland’s four year-round international flight options include an Air Iceland Connect round-trip flight from Reykjavík to Ilulissat Airport starting around $850; Air Greenland and Air Iceland Connect round-trip flights from Reykjavík to Greenland’s capital and largest city, Nuuk, starting around $760; Air Iceland Connect round-trip flights from Reykjavík to Kulusuk in east Greenland starting around $720; or the most popular route, a round-trip flight from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq Airport starting around $900.
The Copenhagen flights happen most frequently, and Kangerlussuaq’s runways were built to accept larger flights like Air Greenland’s 270-person Airbus A330. Air Iceland Connect uses the Bombardier Q400 and Q200 planes, which can hold around 70 passengers or fewer. (Flight options do increase in the summer.)
While the Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq route sees the majority of Greenland’s arrivals, most fliers transfer on to destinations like Nuuk or Ilulissat, which together attract one-third of Greenland’s tourism. In response, Greenland is renovating the domestic airports at these two travel hot spots while keeping Kangerlussuaq open to grow the area’s tourism.
Airport construction is in progress
In Nuuk, a town of 17,000 located just below the Arctic Circle, construction means extending Nuuk International Airport’s current 3,100-foot runway up to 7,200 feet to allow for larger international jets. (Runway requirements vary, but bigger planes like the Airbus A330 need at least 3,280 feet, according to Scandinavian Traveler.) Visit Greenland spokeswoman Liz Cooper said Nuuk’s runway construction will be tricky because the tarmac is built on a rocky outcrop; workers will first level the ground, then extend it, she told AFAR. Nuuk will also get a new terminal dedicated to international flights, as well as a new tower and technical building, according to Nordic Investment Bank (NIB), which provided a loan for the project. Once construction wraps, international travelers will be able to more easily visit Nuuk’s colorful wooden houses, shop the main Imaneq Street for handcrafted goods, and browse archaeological artifacts at the Greenland National Museum—without a cumbersome connection.
Three hundred miles north at Ilulissat Airport, crews are constructing a new 7,200-foot runway, converting the current nearly 2,800-foot runway into an access road, building a new terminal and technical building, and adding a new tower, according to NIB. This project will expand the tourist footprint in Greenland’s remote northern region, which includes one of Greenland’s main attractions: the Ilulissat Icefjord. Along this 34-mile stretch of polar waters, skyscraper-high icebergs drift off from the nearby Jakobshavn Glacier, which is connected to Greenland’s 660,200-square-mile ice sheet. The Jakobshavn Glacier is one of the few places where Greenland’s ice sheet meets the sea.
Kangerlussuaq’s here to stay
If Nuuk and Ilulissat are Greenland’s tourism superstars, why is Kangerlussuaq—over 100 roadless miles from each—the territory’s largest airport? U.S. troops established Kangerlussuaq as a military base in 1941 to support World War II efforts. This area has some of the mildest weather patterns in Greenland, Cooper said. Troops also used it in the Korean and Cold Wars. After that, the base went untouched. Greenland reopened Kangerlussuaq for tourist flights in the 1990s; long runways (nearly 9,200 feet) make it an ideal international hub.
Kangerlussuaq’s town of 500 may not be a tourist haven yet, but as last-chance tourism—the trend of visiting destinations and natural wonders before they’re gone—grows, it could become one. Kangerlussuaq is home to the territory’s only road to the Greenland ice sheet—the much discussed ice sheet that’s melting at record speeds. Local tour operators take travelers from Kangerlussuaq to the ice sheet’s edge, where they can walk on this nearly two-mile-thick Arctic wonder, which contains ice believed to date back as far as 250,000 years.
While Cooper confirmed Kangerlussuaq Airport will remain open, it took years of heated debate to get here. First, there was the question of whether or not it was worth maintaining with Nuuk and Ilulissat growing in popularity. Then, there was speculation that the airport would be forced to close due to melting permafrost beneath the runway. Permafrost (frozen ground) is thawing across Greenland due to rising temperatures. As with many of Greenland’s buildings and structures, the Kangerlussuaq Airport is built atop permafrost. According to Soňa Tomaškovičová, a permafrost researcher who contributed to a recent airport analysis, the permafrost below Kangerlussuaq is not a concern (despite reports to the contrary). Thawing permafrost is an issue when the soil is wet; that’s when it changes shape and disrupts the structures above it. But Kangerlussuaq’s permafrost is mostly dry, Tomaškovičová explained. Thawing won’t cause much (if any) damage. That’s why researchers gave it the green light for air travel. Given its ice-sheet-accessible locale, Cooper said Kangerlussuaq will likely attract new airlines and nonstop routes, too.
Will airlines actually sign on?
Increasing flight options could bring more travelers to Greenland (which is considered an autonomous territory within Denmark), but will North American, European, and U.K. airlines even want to offer direct flights to this emerging tourist destination? Airline experts remain skeptical.
“Airlines study route possibilities exhaustively before launching new markets,” said Madhu Unnikrishnan, editor of Airline Weekly. “I’m not convinced yet that the Greenland market would be big enough to fill airplanes from North America. But it could support some seasonal, leisure routes from Europe.”
Longtime North American airline consultant Mike Boyd is also hesitant. He said the territory needs to work on mainstream appeal first.
“These places have absolutely no market awareness in North America,” said Boyd. “I know of no one that has any knowledge whatsoever of what is in Greenland. That will make the sales pitch really difficult.”
Of course, the same could’ve been said for Iceland before its rise to tourism fame. The country saw 464,000 travelers through Keflavik Airport in 2009, according to the Iceland tourist board. With a strategic marketing push showcasing the country’s wild and untouched landscapes—plus ease of arrival with new airlines and stopover programs—Keflavik Airport welcomed 1.7 million visitors in 2016, then 2.3 million travelers in 2018, the tourist board reported.
Adventure travelers are key
Interest is growing among Greenland’s target tourism demographic: adventure travelers. According to Greenland’s 2018 tourism statistics report, adventure tourism “offers the biggest possible local revenue and is the tourism type that is the most considerate of nature and respects the culture.” Intrepid Travel, an outfitter focused on small-group adventure tours, is experiencing the interest spike firsthand. The outfitter saw a 237 percent increase in Greenland-specific traffic following President Trump’s Greenland-purchase speculations, and it’s launching new 2020 tours like the eight-day Greenland Expedition to meet this growing demand.
Whether the new airport infrastructure will result in a flood of new flights or just a trickle, even a handful of direct flights will make the towering icebergs and Arctic terrain of this virtually tourist-free destination more accessible. And, with Iceland as evidence, that’s exactly what adventurous travelers are looking for.
>> Next: Is Greenland the New Iceland?