Monday, June 24, 2024

Greenland opens new capital airport terminal, hopes to boost tourism, increase economic autonomy

I was among the first passengers at the new Nuuk terminal today.
Today a new international airport terminal opened at Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, and I was among its first passengers. (All photos by RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)

A couple of days ago I wrote about Greenland's autonomy from Denmark, observing that tourism and fisheries, at present levels, might not be enough to sustain the economy of an independent Greenland, notwithstanding popular support for the proposition. The new terminal and runways at Nuuk, co-located with the older facility, are a calculated measure to amp up tourism and ween off Greenland of dependence on Danish aid.

The old Nuuk GOH terminal, closed today, is adjacent to the new.
As I mentioned in my previous post, Greenland infrastructure is still marked by U.S. defensive developments during World War II. The Kingdom of Denmark was occupied by the Nazis and turned over the protection of Greenland to the United States. Part of that American legacy is the country's international airport at Kangerlussuaq, a village deep in the fjords north of Nuuk and well inland, eastward, of second-city Sisimiut. 

Constructed as a military air base in 1941, Kangerlussuaq airport was a strategic refueling point. It was therefore equipped with a runway that could handle large aircraft. After the war, and for decades since, Kangerlussuaq's capacity made it the international hub for Air Greenland.

A larger-than-most Air Greenland plane prepares to fly from Kangerlussuaq to Copenhagen.

Landing at Nuuk is not for the faint of heart.
But Kangerlussuaq makes no sense for civilian use, much less for tourism. Only about 500 people live there, compared with about 17,500 in Nuuk. So intercontinental passengers traveling to or from Nuuk, such as me today, must also make the short hop between Nuuk and Kangerlussuaq. With limited flights in and out of Greenland to begin with, the cost and inconvenience of an added leg is an impediment to the tourism market that Greenland sorely wishes to develop.

As well, the old Nuuk runway was not designed for volume or large aircraft. Because of surrounding mountains and frequent cloud cover, the approach is notoriously challenging for pilots. In fact, when I landed at Nuuk a couple of days ago on a domestic flight, my Air Greenland pilot aborted landing northbound in the dense fog. We circled round and sailed alongside snowy mountain peaks—a bit unnerving—to land in the clearer southbound direction.

New Nuuk's first guests got gift bags.
Today's opening at Nuuk is a soft one, of the terminal only. The bigger, new runways are still under construction, the old runway still in use. Intercontinental passengers such as me still must fly to Kangerlussuaq. That will change when the new Nuuk airport becomes fully operational; plans aim for later this year. In fact, the runway at Kangerlussuaq has become degraded by subsiding permafrost, and the plan is to scuttle that airport for non-military use.

The great hall of the new Nuuk airport is not yet ready for prime time. A plastic sheet covers the escalator, and limited strips of seating equipped with electrical outlets are not yet plugged in to anything. There are not yet any concessions; free coffee and breads were on offer this morning.

For the time being, all roads lead to Kangerlussuaq.
The place looks promising. Warmly enthusiastic representatives this morning awarded the terminal's first 200 passengers "Greenland Airports" "goodie bags" containing travel-size containers and "Greenland airports" luggage tags.

For now, Nuuk airport will retain its IATA code, GOH, which was derived from the Danish name for Nuuk: Godthåb, or "Good Hope."

The Nuuk tarmac at GOH: new runways lie beyond the old, where a plane taxis.

Air Greenland operates a diverse fleet of planes and helicopters to connect the largely roadless country.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Greenland celebrates 'National Day,' ever growing autonomy, but dependence on Danish aid persists

Greenland flags celebrate National Day, Qaqortoq.
Yesterday I was in Qaqortoq, Greenland, for Greenland National Day, June 21. (All photos by RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)

Greenland is a territory of the Kingdom of Denmark. But a visitor might miss that: Greenland flags fly in all parts, and Danish ones are few. Signs increasingly employ the Greenlandic language—which Google Translate does not yet have—without a Danish translation. And though the currency remains the Danish krone, electronic transactions render notes seldom seen.

Americans built a radio station at Narsaq Point. The pictured building
is long abandoned, but the station still broadcasts.
From 1814 to World War II, Greenland was under Danish control, but not formally a part of the kingdom. When Denmark was occupied by the Nazis in World War II, the displaced Danish government signed Greenland over to the protection of the United States. Disused U.S. military installations still dot landscapes. With a new constitution for Denmark after the war, in 1953, Greenland formally became part of the kingdom.

A home rule initiative in 1979 afforded Greenland greater autonomy, but left Denmark in control of foreign affairs, banking, and the legal system. With 75% approval in a 2008 referendum, Greenland claimed further autonomy over its legal system and law enforcement. On National Day in 2009, the official language of Greenland was changed from Danish to Greenlandic.

Qaqortoq

The self-rule law of 2009 allows Greenlanders to declare full independence upon another referendum. And the Danish government has suggested that Greenlanders ought to decide one way or the other. Polls consistently suggest a comfortable majority of Greenlandic support for independence. However, it depends how one asks the question. 

As a county of Denmark, Greenland receives an annual block grant of about US$511 million, which, according to the International Trade Administration, accounts for more than half of Greenland's public budget and 20% of GDP. Greenlandic support for autonomy polls poorly if the question is qualified by a risk to the standard of living. It seems doubtful that the presently leading industries of fisheries and tourism can sustain Greenland's economy without Danish aid.

Qaqortoq "then and now" (image at left from Qaqortoq Museum)






National Day musicians at Hotel Qaqortoq
"Loading," a Nuuk mural by Greenlander Inuk Højgaard,
comments on economic migration from villages to city.

Tourism in the Nuuk fjords, aboard the ferry Sarfaq Ittuk