Photo by Ulannaq Ingemann/Shutterstock
Photo by Jonas Tufvesson/Shutterstock
Kulusuk village in eastern Greenland showcases the island’s Nordic beauty.
The collapse of low-cost carrier Wow Air earlier this year and news of Iceland falling prey to overtourism has made the once-booming travel destination less attractive to some travelers. Is Greenland fast becoming the desired alternative?
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When the Icelandic budget carrier Wow Air ceased operations in March, the end of its no-frills $99 transatlantic flights to Iceland did a lot more to harm Iceland’s booming tourism industry than many might have realized at the time.
“The collapse of Wow Air has had quite a profound impact on us as a company and on our customers,” said Lea Korinth, director of experiences at Jubel, a personalized trip planning company that also offers “surprise trips”—trips in which Jubel puts together mystery itineraries for its customers and reveals the destinations at the time of departure.
“We’ve sold many journeys to Iceland in the last year, most of them surprises as Iceland simply never disappoints. After Wow Air’s collapse, we had to come back to clients who had already booked with us and ask for a severe increase in the client’s budget due to having to book new flights. These flights are almost twice as expensive now compared to when Wow Air still operated,” added Korinth.
After months of financial problems, Wow Air abruptly closed up shop on March 28, reportedly stranding more than 1,000 passengers on both sides of the Atlantic. As recently as January, Wow Air had advertised its “lowest airfare ever”—$49 flights from the United States to Europe.
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While flying to Iceland is no longer a steal of a deal to that degree, there are still ample airlines that fly there, including the national carrier Icelandair (also known for rolling out airfare sales throughout the year, though not at Wow Air levels), Delta Air Lines, Air France, KLM, Air Canada, and United Airlines.
According to Barbara Banks, director of marketing and new trip development for Wilderness Travel, Iceland had actually been falling out of favor with travelers since well before the Wow Air collapse.
“The reports of overtourism had already had an impact on the level of interest in traveling to Iceland,” said Banks. Although Wilderness Travel offers off-season and off-the-beaten-path itineraries in Iceland to help clients get away from tour buses and crowds around Iceland’s most popular sites, she said, “There is no doubt that interest in travel to Iceland is dropping.”
While Iceland bookings have been falling, Banks said that Wildnerness Travel’s Expedition to Greenland itinerary sold out this year. Interest in Greenland is definitely strong, said Banks, adding, “It offers a phenomenal travel experience.”
Jubel’s Korinth said she too is seeing Greenland start to crop up on travelers’ radar. Jubel just received its first request for travelers wanting to book Greenland this past week, and Korinth said she is curious to see whether the company will get more going forward.
For other tour operators, Greenland has already been on the rise for some time, a trend they said got a bump earlier this month when President Donald Trump thrust the world’s largest island into the limelight when he expressed interest in buying it.
Intrepid Travel reported a 237 percent spike in web traffic to its Greenland itinerary web pages during the weekend following Trump’s remarks.
“Greenland’s tourism industry is still quite young. The nation is one of the few places left on Earth that can be described as truly remote and wild. Icebergs tower instead of skyscrapers, and tiny settlements on the coast still rely on subsistence fishing to survive,” said Steph Millington, Intrepid Travel’s regional product manager for Europe.
Intrepid has been expanding its Greenland product over the past couple of years and just launched a new Greenland Expedition for 2020, which will be its first dedicated tour of the country (versus cruises that include Greenland, which Intrepid has offered in the past).
The trip will feature being welcomed into a local home to enjoy kaffeemik, a Greenlandic tradition of serving up sweets and conversation; cruising through broken icebergs to the fishing community of Oqaatsut; hiking to archaeological sites, through gorges and craggy hillsides; exploring Nuuk, the colorful capital of Greenland; and overnighting on the Ilulissat Icefjord, a glacier where Greenland’s ice cap meets the sea.
The fact that it is a land-based tour means that customers can immerse themselves more fully in Greenlandic culture and support local businesses, noted Millington. She added that with demand for Greenland increasing, “It’s really down to the trailblazers to set a precedent to visit the country in a responsible and sustainable manner for those who may follow in their footsteps.”
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Iceland’s rapid rise in popularity, making it an overnight tourism hot spot, may serve as a cautionary tale as travelers start to turn their sights to the more remote reaches of Greenland.
As for how to get there, it’s probably never going to be as easy as Wow Air made it to get to Iceland, but it is doable. Air Greenland operates regular flights from Copenhagen (Greenland is an autonomous region of Denmark) to Kangerlussuaq in eastern Greenland, and seasonal flights between Keflavik in Iceland and the capital of Greenland, Nuuk, in the west. Air Iceland Connect flies year-round from Reykjavík’s domestic airport to Kulusuk in East Greenland and to Nuuk.
There are also ample cruise lines that include Greenland in their Nordic sailings.
To be clear, Iceland isn’t falling completely out of favor. Plenty of tour operators report that the destination continues to be extremely popular with travelers. And in some ways, Greenland is arguably piggybacking on Iceland’s popularity with combination Greenland and Iceland itineraries being the gateway for many to visiting Greenland.
“Iceland has been such a popular destination for a number of years that it’s only natural to experience a bit of a decline in numbers,” said Diana Ditto, director of product design at global tour company Collette. Ditto said Collette has seen steady interest in Iceland, enough to warrant offering two tours to Iceland as well as a combined Iceland and Greenland tour.
Added Ditto, “The Nordic countries are absolutely breathtaking and our guests are enamored by the active glaciers and unique cultural experiences of Greenland.”
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