Discussion around expedition tourism in Greenland | Polarjournal
The headline-grabbing Alpefjord is part of the Kong-Oscar fjord system at the southern end of the Northeast Greenland National Park. The fairly narrow fjord is popular with visitors because of its spectacular scenery. However, this could soon come to an end. (Photo: Michael Wenger)

After the incident in the Alpefjord in the national park of Northeast Greenland, which went off without a hitch, the government has announced that it will discuss measures against the increasing cruise tourism. And Minister for the Environment Kalistat Lund has questioned the sense of expedition travel in general. The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators AECO has now responded to these challenges. But the discussion is unlikely to end there.

The Arctic tourist season is almost over and the last ships are currently sailing in the fjords of Greenland. Many social media entries show happy faces, spectacular landscapes and awesome wildlife images. But the incident in the Alpefjord, where the expedition ship Ocean Explorer accidentally ran aground and had to be towed free again, intensified the discussion about the future of cruises in and around Greenland, especially focusing on expedition tourism. Thereby, the Alpefjord as a destination and the invisible submerged obstacles representing planned stricter laws and regulations are almost symbolic for the discussion.

The current Minister for the Environment, Kalistat Lund of the governing party Inuit Ataqtigiit, sees the increasing number of ships as a major problem and calls for stricter requirements in the licensing procedures. Image: Government of Greenland

“The days of calling yourself an expedition ship when you’re really just a cruise ship should be over.”

Kalistat Lund, Greenlandic Minister for Agriculture, Self-Sufficiency, Energy and Environment

It was sparked by Government member Kalistat Lund. The former pilot and current Minister for the Environment finds sharp words regarding the increasing numbers of tourist ships, especially for expedition vessels. It is far too easy these days for cruise ships to call themselves expedition vessels, he explained in an interview with the newspaper Sermitsiaq. «The days of calling yourself an expedition ship when you’re really just a cruise ship are over. Just look at the ship that ran aground; the more than 200 people on board are not scientists, but tourists», he said.Thus, together with his colleague Vivian Motzfeldt, the minister responsible for tourism, he is lobbying for stricter regulations and laws regarding the permit process for ships. He believes that these visits to Greenland’s fjords harm both the environment and local fisheries: among other things, his ministry claims that the expedition ships scare away narwhals, which are part of the subsistence of the local population. Minister Motzfeldt has already announced that she will have stricter and clearer regulations and laws in place as early as next year. She said that she is in contact with the municipalities to incorporate their wishes and suggestions.

For many places, the revenues from tourism are substantial. At the same time, however, there is a growing number of voices that are critical of the development. Too often the local needs are disregarded by the ship operators and loopholes are sought in order to pay no or only minimal fees. File photo: Dr Michael Wenger

“The terms expedition cruise and expedition cruise ship are internationally recognized terms and have been used for many years.”

Anders de la Cour-Vahl, Vice Executive Director AECO

AECO has tried to counter the criticism from Minister Lund. The term expedition cruise and the associated ships have been internationally recognized for years, explains AECO Vice Executive Director Anders de la Cour Vahl in an interview. Moreover, the approval procedure is already very extensive and complex. In addition, AECO repeatedly points out that its members follow very strict and self-imposed environmental regulations, some of which go beyond national laws and regulations. In addition, they work closely with local authorities and representatives to ensure that the communities receive the most financially as well. However, unlike for Svalbard, no figures exist on how big the turnover is that expedition tourism brings to the municipalities. However, this would be a weighty argument in favor of expedition tourism, as figures from Svalbard show. According to a study there, this form of tourism generates around five times more revenue per passenger than conventional cruise tourism.

Yet whether this would be a strong enough argument for the government in Nuuk remains to be seen. The Greenlandic parliament will vote in two days’ time on a proposal by the government that would allow municipalities to levy their own environmental taxes, which would have to be paid by ship operators and tour operators if they plan to visit the municipality’s territory. This money would then go entirely into the municipality’s coffers. At the same time, large cruise ships will be charged more for port use (with an exception in Nuuk).

Should Minister for Tourism Motzfeldt and Minister for the Environment Lund simultaneously carry out their announcement regarding the closure of various fjords and areas, it is likely to become even more difficult for the industry. It is already facing increasingly strict regulations in Svalbard from government authorities. Coupled with the closure of the Russian Arctic, which will last for a very long time, and the fact that the North American Arctic is economically remote and has strict environmental regulations, things could get tight and even tighter than in the Alpefjord.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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