Greenland’s new tourism law could render some areas “no-go zones” | Polarjournal
The Northeast Greenland National Park was mentioned as one of the areas that might become completely restricted for tourists as a result of a new law. This photo is from the Franz Josef Fjord Glacier. Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki, Wikimedia Commons
The Northeast Greenland National Park is mentioned as one of the areas that might become completely restricted for tourists as a result of a new law. This photo is from the Franz Josef Fjord Glacier in the southwestern part of the park. Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki, Wikimedia Commons

The new law is currently under public consultations so tour operators and other stakeholders are wary to discuss it publicly. More power to locally based operators is a main theme.

It could have gone much worse when the luxury cruise ship Ocean Explorer grounded in East Greenland in September of last year. The grounding happened in the Alpefjord in East Greenland, 1200 nautical miles from the Danish military patrol ship charged with helping.

Thankfully, the 296 people (including crew) sustained no injuries and were eventually helped by the research ship Tarajoq. But the incident was not forgotten in Greenland.

Now, it might render areas like the Alpefjord and all of the Northeast Greenland National Park, the largest national park in the world, complete no-go zones for tourists. That, at least, was the proposal of Greenland’s Minister for Business, Trade, Minerals, Justice, and Equality, Naaja H. Nathanielsen before she started negotiations with tour operators.

“An example could be the National Park in Northeast Greenland, which might only be an area where the military, local hunters, researchers, and mining companies with concessions are allowed to move around, considering what happened with the Ocean Explorer,” Naaja H. Nathanielsen told Sermitsiaq in March.

Ocean Explorer during its grounding last year. The incident demonstrated the dangers of allowing cruise ships to visit highly remote fjords and may ultimately lead to changes in the law. Photo: Air Force /  Joint Arctic Command
Ocean Explorer during its grounding last year. The incident demonstrated the dangers of allowing cruise ships to visit highly remote fjords and may ultimately lead to changes to the law. Photo: Air Force / Joint Arctic Command

Green, yellow, and red zones

The new law, as it was first proposed, includes a section that allows the Greenland government to divide the country into various tourist zones. Although not mentioned in the law text, Naaja H. Nathanielsen talks about three different zone types: green, yellow, and red.

The green zones would be free for tour operators to use. The yellow zones would have certain demands like the use of local sailors to visit specific areas and certain restrictions like no operations during hunting seasons.

The red zones would be completely banned for tour operators. Naaja H. Nathanielsen gave the example of Northeast Greenland as a possible red zone but did not mention which other areas could be included. This decision will ultimately be made by Greenland’s five municipalities in a dialogue with local stakeholders.

And while local operators will have a chance to get a say in the zoning, this will be harder for the large international cruise operators. Naaja H. Nathanielsen acknowledged this.

“It will likely hit the large tour operators the hardest, as they may find it more difficult to incorporate flexibility. Additionally, they risk being restricted if a municipality, for example, sets a limit on how many passengers are allowed to disembark at the same time. So yes, we will likely have to filter out some of the large operators, as has been done in Svalbard and Iceland, but it is in the name of sustainability, and it is the right way to go,” she told Sermitsiaq.

Nuuk Water Taxi with its iconic yellow tour boats is one of the local operators that might be favoured over large international cruise ships. Photo: Ole Ellekrog
Nuuk Water Taxi with its iconic yellow tour boats is one of the local operators that might be favoured over large international cruise ships with the new law. Photo: Ole Ellekrog

Public consultations

But this was back in March. Since then the tourism industry has had a chance to have their say. During the recent Future Greenland conference, the new law was widely discussed, and the industry, too, has been heard during public consultations.

On May 15th, Naaja H. Nathanielsen said that she had listened to inputs from the industry and made several changes to the law text as a result. Other points of critique, she said, did not lead to changes to the original proposal. Instead, to make sure that everyone had had their say, she extended the public consultation period until June 5th.

On May 27th, all tourism stakeholders in Greenland were invited to a meeting in Nuuk. The specifics of what was discussed has not yet been disclosed. In headline form, the contentious points on the agenda were: the reach of the law, the demands for authorisation and security personnel, demands on ownership, and sustainability.

Polar Journal has contacted several tourism stakeholders, including the publicly owned Visit Greenland, but none returned with on-record comments. One tour operator declined speaking on record as they did not believe they represented the view of everyone.

Aside from the tourism zoning areas, the law also includes demands for authorisation and local residency. Moreover, it opens up the possibility of arranging polar bear sightseeing tours, an option that one South Greenland operator has already been granted. 

The final phrasings of the law are still in contention but however they turn out, they will likely lead to large changes to Greenland’s tourism industry. Not least for large foreign cruise operators; operators of ships like the grounded Ocean Explorer.

The first draft of the law can be read here (in Danish and Greenlandic).

Ole Ellekrog, Polar Journal AG

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