"The weather decides": It could almost be the motto of Greenland.
Visitors drawn to this North Atlantic island to see its powder blue glaciers, iceberg-clogged fjords and breathtakingly stark landscapes quickly learn to respect the elements, and they're sometimes rewarded for it.
One cold December day, I was waiting for a delayed flight in Kangerlussuaq, a former U.S. military base just above the Arctic Circle, when a friendly Air Greenland pilot named Stale asked if I'd like to join him on a drive to the harbor to "pick up some musk ox heads." The offer seemed very Greenlandic, so how could I refuse?
By early afternoon, it was already getting dark. We hopped into a pickup and headed down a long, icy road. At the water's edge, Stale picked up a musk ox skull — they are kept as trophies, and the horns can be valuable for carving and toolmaking. Then we drove up a snow-covered mountain. The full moon illuminated the fjord below. Next to it, the town looked like a lunar base: a small pocket of human activity nestled in a seemingly infinite void.
I had arrived in Kangerlussuaq earlier that day aboard Air Greenland's first brand-new jet, an A330neo fresh from the Airbus factory in Toulouse, France. The airport in Kangerlussuaq is one of few in Greenland with runways long enough to accommodate large jets. From there, travelers must switch to smaller turboprop planes to continue onward, including to the capital, Nuuk — where I was eventually headed — or Ilulissat, a town whose icy fjord is a UNESCO World Heritage site. When the Airbus jet, also carrying the prime minister of Greenland, landed, hundreds of people waving red-and-white Greenlandic flags greeted us.
The new jet is part of a plan to invigorate the island's tourism industry. Greenland, which is part of Denmark but has autonomy over most domestic affairs, is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation, building new runways and terminals in Nuuk and Ilulissat. If all goes according to the government's plan, large jets could bring international visitors directly to these towns by 2024.
The 35-year-old prime minister, Múte B. Egede, who supports eventual independence from Denmark, sees tourism as a way to build economic self-sufficiency. The government has banned all oil exploration and has been cautious about expanding mining despite the potential for profits: It blocked the development of one rare-earth mining project over fears about uranium contamination.
"We need to have more growth," Egede told me before the flight departed. "Right now most of our money comes from fisheries. We need some other income possibilities, and tourism is one of the key potentials for future growth in Greenland."
Tourists are rare, for now
Greenland, the world's largest island, is roughly three times the size of Texas but has only about 57,000 residents. In the first three quarters of 2022, it attracted just under 55,000 visitors, according to Visit Greenland, the national tourism authority, and nearly 37,000 of them came from Denmark. Only 2,430 Americans visited Greenland in that period.
Direct flights from the United States could mean a big influx.
Air Greenland CEO Jacob Nitter Sorensen told me last year that the airline has North America in its sights, with New York as a top destination. That would put Nuuk just a four-hour hop away from the U.S. East Coast, meaning Americans would no longer need to backtrack from Copenhagen. (Nearly all flights to Greenland currently pass through the Danish capital.)
But a sudden surge of tourists could strain Greenland's limited infrastructure and challenge what makes the island special. Visitors come to experience its remoteness. Fly down the west coast and you'll pass countless fjords and glaciers crowded only with birds and reindeer. You're more likely to spot humpback whales, narwhals, polar bears and musk oxen than to see a tour bus. Some locals worry about becoming the next Iceland, which has struggled to cope with hordes of tourists and rising prices as that island's popularity has exploded in the past decade.
For now, those fears seem distant. Tourists are rare, and the weather still makes the rules. When I finally got to Nuuk, I had planned to go on a snowshoe trek in the mountains outside town and take a boat trip to see the fjords. I had also booked a special dinner of traditional Greenlandic cuisine — a menu that might have included food like reindeer, whale, musk ox, and Arctic herbs and berries. But a lack of snow put a stop to the trek, high winds canceled the boat trip, and the dinner was called off because there weren't enough other customers.
But at least one plan remained intact. I had booked a night in a "glass igloo" at the edge of town and was looking forward to the private hot tub and sauna — with views of the nearby bay and mountains — on its deck.
With panoramic views of the rugged landscape, it felt a bit like camping, but with a very effective heating system.
Striking a difficult balance
The island's tourist infrastructure remains somewhat limited, but officials hope to change that by the time the new runways and terminals open next year.
"There's a great pressure to have more destinations ready when it comes to hotels, restaurants and experiences," said Anne Nivíka Grodem, CEO of Visit Greenland. "And it must be based on our values, to ensure a sustainable development."
With jet travel a major contributor to global warming, a destination famous for its ice and snow will have to strike a difficult balance.