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.
“We’ve sold many journeys to Iceland in the last year,” added Korinth. But, she said that 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.”
Wow Air abruptly closed up shop on March 28, reportedly stranding hundreds of passengers on both sides of the Atlantic. In September, the low-cost airline looked like it might come back to life after a U.S-based aviation firm agreed to acquire it. That development has since stalled out with reports emerging that Wow Air will only be a cargo carrier for now.
But Iceland had actually been falling out of favor with travelers since well before the Wow Air collapse, according to Barbara Banks, director of marketing and new trip development for Wilderness Travel.
“The reports of overtourism had already had an impact on the level of interest in traveling to Iceland,” said Banks. While 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.”
In 2009, Iceland welcomed just 464,000 tourists. By 2018, that number had ballooned to 2.34 million in a country that only has a population of 360,000. For the first half of 2019, Iceland experienced the first year-over-year slump (a 15 percent drop) in tourist numbers that the island had seen in years. The numbers imply that after a nearly decade-long run of double-digit year-over-year growth, Iceland may have started to peak.
While Iceland faces a potential tourist-surge hangover, Greenland, its much larger neighbor 750 miles to the west, presents the kind of tourism numbers and experiences reminiscent of a pre-tourist boom Iceland.
The autonomous region of Denmark offers the beauty and remoteness that initially lured travelers to Iceland (both are still available in Iceland, the latter just requires a bit more digging)—with the added advantage of still being a relatively undiscovered tourism destination. Last year, only 259,000 travelers overnighted in Greenland, an island 21 times the size of Iceland with one-sixth the population.
Banks said although Wilderness Travel’s Iceland bookings have been falling, the company’s Expedition to Greenland itinerary sold out this year. Interest in Greenland is definitely strong, said Banks, adding, “It offers a phenomenal travel experience.”
Other tour operators said that Greenland has already been on the rise for some time, a trend they said got a bump this past summer after 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 itineraries that simply 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.
Millington cautioned, however, that whatever tourism growth Greenland sees should ideally be executed responsibly. “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,” she said
Iceland’s rapid rise in popularity, making it an overnight tourism sensation, should serve as a cautionary tale as travelers start to turn their sights to the more remote reaches of Greenland. Though, without Wow Air-level airfares, the threat of a dangerously speedy jolt in tourism numbers for Greenland is far lesser.
It’s likely never going to be as easy to get to Greenland as Wow Air made it to get to Iceland, but it is doable. Air Greenland operates regular flights from Copenhagen, 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.
Where to go
If you don’t tackle Greenland by way of a cruise or tour, there are ample options for places to go depending on your interests.
Nuuk, on the southwestern coast, is the capital and Greenland’s largest city (which for Greenland means 17,000 people). Here, you’ll find upscale Greenlandic cuisine, style, art, and design, including the modern Katuaq Cultural Center, which hosts music and theater performances, as well as exhibitions, and the contemporary Nuuk Lokalmuseum gallery. There are several outposts serving elevated local cuisine (musk ox, seal, whale, and lumpfish roe are among the regional delicacies), including Sarfalik, located at the sleek Hotel Hans Egede.
Iceberg lovers will want to head northwest to Ilulissat, where a recently opened Igloo Lodge gives guests the opportunity to stay in one of five traditional igloos that were hand-built in the style of the local Inuit culture. If that’s a bit too rugged, Hotel Arctic is a sophisticated property that sits on the edge of the Ilulissat Ice Fjord.
For a truly remote escape, head north to Uummannaq, a small village with big charm and even bigger mountainous backdrops.