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Soaring Tourism In Greenland Creates Opportunities For The Sparsely Populated Island


Looking for the next Instagram-worthy place to go on vacation? Consider Greenland. Tourism on the sparsely populated island has soared in the past few years, and that's creating opportunities for the people who live there. NPR's Jackie Northam reports from southern Greenland.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: More than 60,000 tourists visited Greenland this year. That's about double what it was just three years ago. And that number is expected to go up again next year.



NORTHAM: We went to Kujalleq College in the southern town of Qaqotoq to talk with some students learning to be tour guides. It's a cheery classroom. Sunlight streams through the large windows, and the walls are painted a vibrant yellow. The students here are studying everything from tourism management and marketing to becoming outdoor adventure guides. Twenty-seven-year-old student Berti Kleist-Klemensen has already worked for one adventure company.

BERTI KLEIST-KLEMENSEN: We would travel around all South Greenland, and we hike, and we sleep in a tent. We walk on the glacier. We go kayaking and everything. I love it.

NORTHAM: Other students like 24-year-old Malou Nielsen Moller (ph) want to own their own tourist business. She and her partner are buying a guest house in a remote area of Greenland. They'll cater to tourists who like to fly fish.

MALOU NIELSEN MOLLER: It's really beautiful. The surroundings are really nice, and it's really quiet, so you could be in touch with nature.

NORTHAM: Greenland's glaciers, fjords and wildlife are a powerful draw for tourists, says 25-year-old student Kari Noahsen.

KARI NOAHSEN: Most of the tourists see Greenland for - come here before the ice melt. Like, they want to see the ice caps or inland ice before it melts.

NORTHAM: But the growing number of tourists can overwhelm Greenland's small towns and cities. Greenland has just 56,000 people. There's a shortage of hotel rooms. Many are already booked out for the short summer season in 2020. And there are fewer than 50 Airbnbs available. There are no major roads in Greenland. Although three new airports are due to be built in the next few years, right now, you have to fly or take a boat to get anywhere, says Kleist-Klemensen.

KLEMENSEN: If we compare to other countries, Greenland is very new, and we don't have as much as experience with tourism as in other countries.

NORTHAM: And the season is short. The temperature here in Kujalleq in southern Greenland is already below the freezing mark. Winter is definitely setting in. And the number of tourists in this town of 3,000 people has plummeted.


NORTHAM: I'm standing in front of the tourist office, which is right next to the town's harbor. It's a solid red building with white trim windows. It's now closed until next summer.

And that means a lot of people will visit Greenland in a short period, which can be tough on the environment. Student Kleist-Klemensen says Greenland needs to be careful about how it nurtures its tourist industry. She points to Iceland, which was overwhelmed when low-cost airlines flooded the country with tourists.

KLEMENSEN: Right now, they have this problem that their nature is being - how do you say? - destroyed. And if we want to make one of our main income from tourism, we should learn from Iceland and take care of our nature at the same time but also make a good income.

NORTHAM: Kleist-Klemensen says while it's good to welcome visitors, Greenland needs to protect the very things that are drawing them in.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Kujalleq, Greenland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINAMI DEUTSCH'S "TUNNEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.