Published on Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Arctic Tourism - More than an Industry?

Overseeing Kangerlussuaq Airport, Greenland. Three more international airports are currently being planned in Greenland, partially to accommodate for more tourism. Photo: Carina Ren

Developing Tourism in Greenland - More than an Industry? Write Carina Ren and Daniela Chimirri

In Greenland, politicians and businesses are hoping and planning for substantial growth in tourism. As the construction of three transatlantic airports draws closer, a broader societal discussion of how (much) tourism should be developed, in what ways, and by whom, is lacking. In this article, we show how tourism practitioners in Greenland perceive the challenges and potential posed by tourism and discuss how its development could be linked to other spheres of society—turning tourism from an industry into a potential catalyst for social change.

While tourist numbers in the Arctic are still relatively low in comparison to other parts of the world,1) tourism is currently experiencing unprecedented attention in Arctic regions. Greenland is no exception to this trend. Successful marketing combined with a growing global interest in the Arctic has led to an increasing amount of tourists and; unsurprisingly, to a coinciding rise in political and societal interest in tourism.

Today, tourism is proposed as one of Greenland's three economic pillars, next to fishing and mining, and as a promising lever for the Arctic nation's future economic development.2) Its successful development could potentially help pave the way for the Arctic nation's independence from the Danish Commonwealth.

In the coming years, large infrastructure projects—partially triggered by a wish to facilitate transatlantic tourism—will require large-scale investments. While there is a continuous public debate about the location, building, and enlargement of the proposed three airports and several harbors, very little attention is given in public discourse to broader questions of tourism development.

For a community with less than 60.000 inhabitants, living conditions in Greenland are due to become affected as tourism numbers swell. In a research project conducted by Aalborg University mapping the current tourism landscape in Greenland, one of the interlocutors from a major travel agency voiced his concern: "Nobody has tried to sit down and to find out how we want it [tourism]. On what kinds of conditions and terms do we want this development?".

Despite  significant changes on the horizon, a discussion of how  tourism should be developed, how much is desired, in what ways, and by whom, has until now remained absent.

This lack of concern about the impacts of tourism is surprising considering the proximity to Iceland, currently witnessing an explosive intake of tourists. While the two destinations are hardly comparable in terms of what they offer , their infrastructure, and their capacity, seeing the massive impacts that tourism has created on the neighboring nation could trigger some reflections. One could look to Iceland, for example, on how to understand the role and transformative capacity of tourism in society.

In his 2015 article "A Fish Called Tourism", Icelandic tourism researcher Gunnar Thór Jóhannesson prophetically warned a euphoric Icelandic tourism industry on the dangers of thinking about tourism as yet another business opportunity.3) In his account of how tourism evolved to be taken seriously as "a real business", Jóhannesson describes how tourism was gradually taken up during the late 1990s as a solution to the continual crisis in the agricultural sector with farmers being offered financial support to turn from farming sheep and cows to "herding" tourists. Similar to the situation in Greenland today, tourism in Iceland seemed to offer a beam of hope as the traditional staples of the economy were in crisis.

Parallel to this development, the Icelandic Tourist Board convincingly transferred important vocabulary of fishery management to tourism, equating the export value of each tourist to a ton of cod, talking of "tourist stock" and depicting the airplanes of Icelandair as "trawlers". This, Jóhannesson argued, helped position tourism in the discourse on the national economy as similar to and on par with fisheries and heavy industries.

While such an approach helps policy makers and investors to recognize tourism as a 'real business', the problem is that a narrative framing the tourism sector in terms of fisheries hides its complexity. Unlike fish, tourists do not stay in the oceans around Iceland, but interfere in good and bad ways with life on shore. In the context of tourism policy making, it is important to acknowledge the ways in which tourism activities are connected to the environment and visited societies and to view tourism as more than just another industry, similar to that of mining and fisheries.

A similar argument can be found in the article "More than an 'industry': The forgotten power of tourism as a social force". Based on historical document studies from international tourism organizations and councils, Australian tourism researcher Freya Higgins-Desbiolles depicts how tourism from its very early proliferation was seen as a way to facilitate social change and further intercultural understanding.4) As economic and industrial discourses continually exposed tourism to market forces from the mid-1900s, the dominant perception of tourism was successfully transformed into that of an industry.

As a result, tourism research and policy making are today overwhelmingly dedicated to the business side of tourism, viewing tourism as a strictly economic endeavor. However, as argued by Higgins-Desbiolles, tourism is not merely an industry but rather a social force with deep transformative capacities for societies, cultures, and the environment.

Jóhannessons's and Higgins-Desbiolles' attempt to revive and reinforce a wider vision of the role of tourism in local and global communities lead us back to the initial questions of how tourism as a social force could work as a catalyst for change in Arctic communities. How could tourism be mobilized in meaningful ways to help engage with local challenges in the Arctic? As discussions about sustainability unsurprisingly continue to grow in an Arctic context—and there is a push to  incorporate society and the environment into economic development—planning for tourism in Arctic communities could be guided by more than market forces.

We turn to Greenland to exemplify how tourism is connected to societal challenges in the Arctic and how this might offer ways to rethinking tourism as something more than an industry in a Greenlandic context. We discuss three ways in which the development of tourism is linked to societal challenges: in the field of cultural heritage, within education, and in the area of entrepreneurship.

The examples are drawn from the research project "Tourism Development in Greenland - Identification and Inspiration" where Greenlandic tourism stakeholders in Kangerlussuaq, Sisimiut, Ilulissat, and Nuuk shared insights on how they work with and envision tourism.5)

Cultural Heritage and Local Knowledge—New Possibilities in Tourism?

We find a powerful example of how tourism is connected to current societal challenges in the area of cultural heritage. While kayaks are less and less used for their original hunting purpose, local knowledge about them is still present and the tourist interest in kayak touring and building is increasing. By becoming part of tourism activities and a potential business, local knowledge is not only mobilized, but also contributes to the sustaining—and reconceptualization—of cultural heritage. This illustrates how tourism can play a crucial part in Arctic societies today in potentially re-activating local knowledge.

Tourism and community stakeholders work together; for instance, in integrating cultural heritage and local knowledge into local tourism products and experiences. At a visit to the UNESCO site Ilulissat Icefjord, its site manager noted the raising interest in Greenlandic kayaks: "There are people who travel from all over the world and want to do workshops on how to build a Greenlandic kayak. The interest in building Greenlandic kayaks is so high.[…] we can use this interest in building your own kayak and do offers here in Greenland".

However, questions of risk, safety, and certification prevail: "[Locals] are more than qualified to take people out but the problem is they are not certified as sea kayak instructors, even though they know more about the kayak". While official certification might function to assure the tourist of the highest degree of safety, integrating local knowledge, which has been passed down from generation to generation as informal non-certified skills, through certification is highly complex.

This raises the question of how to create a certification framework which acknowledges local knowledge and it's anchoring in local cultural heritage, but also responds to standardized requirements. In this work to connect local knowledge and experience to the development of tourism products, tourism actors point to collaboration as central to their work. Collaboration offers them the possibility to build capacity and share knowledge. Collaborative activities also highlight the potential and value of informal knowledge based on acquired everyday skills.

The challenge of certification intersects with general concerns regarding the educational sector in Greenland. According to one tourism stakeholder, "one of the toughest social challenges in Greenland is education. We definitely need to have more people educated. Education is our guiding star right now. It has been for years and it will be for years. We have to do that in collaboration with companies and municipalities, with everybody".

Another tourism actor supports this by saying that education "is the main challenge of all. We have been talking about tourism and the overall infrastructure, but one of the biggest challenges is education. That is something we can agree upon in the whole of the country". So while education is crucial for developing stronger and more innovative tourism services and experiences, the specificities of tourism also calls for specific skills.

Good language skills are quintessential to operate successfully: "If you have problems with speaking English and Danish, it's really difficult to operate a tourism business". This rudimentary demand is paired with the expressed need for raising service levels and thus calls for improving the relatively low educational level in Greenland, where only ¼ of the population graduates from high school and little over 10% receive a college degree.6)

Campus Kujalleq, located in South Greenland, has developed new educational programs in Arctic tourist guiding, adventure guiding, and in hospitality and tourism management. Several informants from the public and private sector point to a climbing number of graduates as an example showcasing the interest in this field. According to a teacher it is also "a very popular education, attracting quite many and they all go out and find a job in tourism after [they have finished their studies]".

By combining a tourism workforce training with a raising awareness of the role and (re)activation of local knowledge and informally acquired skills,7) tourism contributes to crafting new educational offers and an increasing interest in attaining post-secondary education.

Seeing and talking of tourism as an industry easily overlooks the clear connections between developing tourism, raising the educational level at a national level, and providing attractive educational and training opportunities. By linking the development of tourism to issues of education, we see its ability to supplement existing educational offerings for the young generation and contribute to future educational groundings as new career opportunities and paths in tourism open itself to new groups of young people.


A representative from Corporate Social Responsibility Greenland raised concerns about the need to build local capacity in tourism by including new, younger actors: "If we want to develop tourism, it does not only happen with the people that are already involved. We also need to involve more young people. That way we can develop our own community in a sustainable way". This touches upon a similar issue, entrepreneurship, which has so far received very little governmental attention.

Entrepreneurship is increasingly recognized on a global scale as an important factor in changing and developing societies. The last decade has witnessed an increasing focus on developing strategies for entrepreneurship education in a Nordic context. In Greenland however, limited experience has been made in this area. As stated in the report Nordic Entrepreneurship Islands, published by the Danish Foundation for entrepreneurship, the country has no national strategy or goals for entrepreneurship education, no ministry involvement or any national definition.8) In spite of any governmental strategy, Greenlandic tourism actors at a local level point to an increased interest in entrepreneurship and link this to new opportunities created through the intensification of tourism. In the words of one: "Especially in tourism now, you can see a potential. It's really moving forward. And people see that potential and start new things towards exploiting it".

Tourism entrepreneurs in Greenland are typically small, often seasonal initiatives, offering services or products such as equipment, souvenirs, food products, or excursions. Their businesses are often characterized by collaboration. As stated by a tourism actor in West Greenland, this collaboration creates benefits beyond the often small business themselves: "When you have small entrepreneurs in a small community, everyone relies on the others, and we all take a little share of the cake".

Tourism actors identify entrepreneurship in tourism as a potential lever to lifting Greenlandic businesses and communities. As stated by a tourism actor in Greenland, "we see more and more people getting into the tourism business, taking the guide education and we hear about people who are thinking of starting something new in Greenland, which is very positive".

The tourism product is often composed of many different 'subservices' such as transportation, accommodation and catering to mention the most basic. In order to create and deliver tourism products, tourism actors therefore rely on each other and need to work together.  An example on how entrepreneurial activities and collaboration emerge on a community scale comes from cruise tourism, where smaller villages in Northern Greenland often have the whole village involved. According to a cruise operator: "now when the cruise ships come in, the locals are all in their national costumes and everybody is selling small things, souvenirs. This is what they are doing now. That is what is needed. It's not one or two operators in a small town; it needs to be the whole community".

Developed collaboratively, tourism holds the potential to inspire new ways of thinking about and engage with local challenge. Emerging local tourism initiates show that education, entrepreneurship and community development are not issues separate from tourism, but are rather—as shown in these examples—intrinsically linked to them and that new opportunities in each of these areas could be developed together, rather than separately.

Expanding the Values of Arctic Tourism Development

Insights from tourism actors in Greenland display that tourism, as argued by Jóhannesson and Higgins-Desbiolles, is not merely an industry but a social force. Tourism is increasingly recognized as significant for the future economic development of Arctic communities,9) but this should be accompanied by careful preparation. If planned with local challenges and resources in mind, tourism has much to offer to local communities, for instance in revaluing and activating cultural heritage, in assisting in recognizing and certifying local (informal) knowledge, raising the level of education, and stimulating and facilitating entrepreneurial activities.

The hands-on challenges and concerns of tourism stakeholders in Greenland display the acute need for strategic calls to action grounded in public involvement. Arctic tourism is not merely a fish-like resource to be "trawled" or mined but a powerful societal force to be carefully managed. Public discussion is needed on where tourism development is currently heading, how it could be planned and developed in the future, and how it might also be connected to other societal challenges as "more than an industry".

Carina Ren is Associate Professor in Tourism and Cultural Innovation at the Tourism Research Unit at Aalborg University, Denmark, and is affiliated to AAU Arctic in connection to her current research on Arctic tourism development, in particular in Greenland.

Daniela Chimirri is a PhD student on community-based tourism and collaboration in Greenland and is jointly affiliated to the Tourism Research Unit and the Center for Innovation and Research in Culture and Living in the Arctic at Aalborg University, Denmark.

Source:  The Arctic Institute

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