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Tourism to Greenland: Renewed Ethnicity?

Tourism to Kalatdlit Nunat (Greenland) is being promoted as a "New Adventure in Tourism" and eyed by the government as a source of much-needed outside revenue and local employment to support the new economic demands generated by the 1980 semi-independence from Denmark. Unlike elsewhere, Greenlandic tourism is a conscious indigenous strategy and may well be an added stimulus to national ethnicity.


Greenland, the world's largest island, was initially peopled 4,000 years ago by Inuits (Eskimos). Four hundred years of minimal Viking settlement dating to 986 AD apparently had little permanent effect. The rediscovery of Greenland by European whalers and missionaries in the 17th century initiated limited culture change.

German occupation of Denmark during World War II brought Greenland under American protection, and its strategic importance led to construction of four major airstrips. After the War, to prevent "contamination" of native culture, Denmark closed Greenland to civilian outsiders and restricted military personnel to their bases. Simultaneously, the Danes began to upgrade housing and social services, and expand educational opportunities. Today, most Greenlanders live in Scandinavian-style modern housing, either multi-story apartment complexes or single-family units, although piped water supplies are not yet available in all homes due to the rigors of Arctic winters.

The presence of a substantial number of Danes in Greenland, serving as teachers and public servants, coupled with an increasing number of young Greenlanders who have spent time in Europe, has led to rapid acculturation. Better health delivery services has caused the population to increase 5-fold in this century to 50,000. The Kalatdlits are now a Westernized, bilingual people with scant personal knowledge of their Eskimo heritage, except in remote communities such as Thule in the north or on the East coast.


Tourism is perceived to be a "clean industry" that will augment the country's other economic opportunities - fishing and fish processing, sheep grazing and mining. Many young Kalatdlits have been students and tourists in Europe and have first-hand knowledge of the role of tourism on the continent.

Relaxation of the "closed door" policy in the late 1970s permitted a sprinkling of Europeans - mainly Germans - to tour. To service them, Greenland has relied on leftover military infrastructure such as airstrips and converted barracks. Hiking and fishing are prime recreational attractions, especially during the summer's Midnight Sun. Some local entrepreneurs have endeavored to extend the tourist season by promoting April sledge-trips by dogteam, attracting a small number of hardy adventurers.

To serve passenger and freight needs of the many west coast settlements, the Royal Greenland Trading Company has long operated two vessels on a bi-weekly basis, round-trip from Narssarssuaq north to Umanak and Upernavik. Although primarily intended to provide Greenlanders with a convenient, dependable ferry service, the ships now carry an increasing number of foreign tourists. To foster tourism, new vessels with tourist facilities are expected to be in service by summer 1983.

The Kalatdlits want tourism. Since 1981, the Director of Tourism has promoted the industry through well-written, slick brochures to the Danish Tourist Board offices in the USA and elsewhere. This is in sharp contrast to the conditions at the 1980 Innuit Circumpolar Conference, when phone calls concerning Greenland tourist routes and facilities were fruitless and cables to suggested addresses in Greenland went unanswered.

In 1980, charter aircraft operators on Baffin Island in Canada began occasional flights to Greenland. In 1982, a regular schedule opened Greenland to the North American market. Meanwhile, the government is providing a better internal air network and is investing heavily in the construction of new airstrips.


Tourist facilities within the country are not well developed. Only in Godthab (Nuuk) and Jocobshavn (Ilulissat) do hotels meet general European standards. Both these hostelries are owned by Danes and also serve local political, social and business functions. Elsewhere, accommodations are either at the Seamen's Homes or at the small Greenlandic-owned hotels, where communication is difficult for non-Danish/Inupik speakers. To compete for international tourists, Greenland needs hotels and sightseeing services, but the short tourist season makes investment risky, and costly.

Despite the short season, tourism does offer potential seasonal employment and new revenues. However, some Kalatdlits are wary that tourist expectations - "to see Natives" - will make them objects of curiosity. In addition, they fear that the control of tourism will pass to tour operators and non-Greenlandic carriers who will derive the largest economic benefits.

Yet, the mechanized fishing and fish-processing industry cannot absorb all who seek employment. In addition to jobs, the Kalatdlit, who seek a national identity, see tourism promising to financially reward their efforts - especially in aesthetics. Small Angmagssalik-type figures in ivory and, more recently, in soapstone, now overflow souvenir shops. Other soapstone carvings, patterned after Canadian models and not indigenous art forms, are available in a wide range of quality and cost.

The emergence of dance troupes known throughout the tourist-frequented realms, performing short fake-culture versions of native rituals, is inevitable. Unlike Alaskan Eskimo groups clad in fur parkas, the Kalatdlit wear beaded leather garments that are colorful and resemble the folk costumes of Scandinavia.

The one indigenous craft in which the Kalatdlit excel - making sealskin coats and fur trinkets - may not achieve its appropriate role in the marketplace, given the environmentalist disapproval of the fur trade. This is unfortunate since seal meat is still very important in the local diet and the use of the hide is but a by-product of their harvest.

In sum, tourism appears to be a viable new industry with advantages, including a renewed sense of ethnic identity, if controls are instituted to maintain standards of authenticity. The Arctic, however, is already a warehouse of inferior "airport art." Given the remoteness, cost, and limited touristic interest in Greenland, it is hard to imagine that Kalatdlit Nunat will ever compete with Disneyland or Waikiki as a site of mass tourism.

Growth of the tourist industry may well intermesh with the process of modernization associated with culture change, but here, as in a few other areas, it may also serve to reinforce ethnic identity. For many decades, the Kalatdlit have looked to Denmark and Europe for their roots. Today, they throng to local museums to view ancient crafts and, for the first time, are traveling to Canada and the US to visit their Inuit "brothers" to learn about Eskimo ways. If this new industry provides a cash income and also generates new pride in their heritage, why NOT tourism?

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