Put Away Your Parka: Why Greenland Isn’t the Arctic Paradise You Think It Is.

I had just returned from a two-week luxury cruise to Greenland when the internet erupted in self-righteous fury. Martha Stewart (God help her) used a chunk of “iceberg” to chill a cocktail during her own Arctic expedition into the fjords aboard Swan Hellenic’s “SH Vega.”

“Martha the ice caps are melting don’t put them in your drink,” one Instagram user wrote. The parlor trick (which typically entails using a fragment that’s already fallen in the water) is, of course, harmless. In a place where climate change and centuries of rampant overhunting have left an indelible mark on the culture and landscape, there are much more serious problems to worry about than a whiskey on the rocks. As Greenland makes its way onto best destination lists for 2024 and becomes more accessible thanks to new flights and sailings, I can’t help but wonder—should it?

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King Oscars Fjord, Northeast Greenland
More and more ships are heading north, but their sightings may not be quite as advertised.

At first glance, the largest island on the planet seems like paradise for travelers seeking refuge in the isolation and beauty of nature. According to the World Bank, Greenland boasts the lowest population density of any nation in the world. You could get blissfully lost kayaking through the winding fjords of Scoresby Sund or hiking along valleys filled with neon purple dwarf fireweed. As an animal lover, I carefully selected an itinerary that included East Greenland—home to Northeast Greenland National Park, the largest park in the world with more square miles than most countries—to maximize my chances of soul-stirring encounters with polar bears, Arctic foxes, and ringed seals.

Admittedly, I fell a bit for the marketing jargon and glossy photos of virginal blue glaciers. The cruise line told me to anticipate “teeming wildlife, including great colonies of Atlantic puffin and other seabirds.” Reindeer, beluga whales, narwhals, and polar bears were also on the program. We met exactly zero of these creatures. (Stewart’s Instagram followers may remember her excitement at spotting a single seagull).

In the end, we were lucky to see a few humpback and fin whales at a distance through binoculars, as we hopefully scanned the horizon and waited for something—anything—to appear out of the oppressive fog. Greenland may be one of the most stunning places you’ll ever visit, but it’s also one of the emptiest.

There’s a reason behind Greenland’s lack of wildlife. Overhunting species to the brink of collapse has plagued the island for centuries—so much so that historians now believe the overexploitation of walrus tusks (a source of ivory) led to the once mysterious abandonment of Greenland’s Norse colonies in the 15th century.

Humans haven’t learned much in 600-plus years. Despite the best efforts of international organizations including NAMMCO (North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission) and the United Nations Environmental Programme, Greenland’s narwhals and belugas are expected to disappear within the decade due to lenient hunting quotas, as well as cruise ship strikes and marine noise pollution. (The irony is not lost on me).

What had been sold to me as an Arctic safari through untouched tundra filled with frolicking muskoxen turned out to be a dystopian horror show. Instead of distanced, eco-friendly polar bear sightings aided by the ancient know-how of Greenlandic Inuit guides, we were offered the opportunity to buy claws and watch hunters skin a freshly killed bear in the village of Aappilattoq.

Cruise ship among icebergs in the Uummannaq fjord
Icebergs routinely block cruise routes.

While I believe it’s important to demonstrate cultural sensitivity everywhere you travel—many Greenlandic Inuits have been hunting polar bear, narwhal, and beluga for thousands of years and rely on them for food in harsh Arctic conditions—I also believe in the power of ecotourism to reshape traditions that may prove harmful in a rapidly evolving world. You only have to look to countries like Rwanda to see how a conservation success story like that of mountain gorillas can fuel community infrastructure projects and economic growth.

Responsible action is needed now more than ever. Greenland’s ice sheet, which covers 80 percent of the country’s surface and is the second largest body of ice in the world after Antarctica, makes the island particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change. (Greenland’s ice loss during the past 30 years equals roughly 36 times the size of New York City). In addition to rising sea levels, scientists have witnessed a cascading effect on the environment, including—you guessed it—an alarming decline of plant and animal life.

During my voyage, the signs of global warming haunted us everywhere we went. Perched in a zodiac, we watched a waterfall pouring off the once-frozen ice sheet from the height of a three-story building. Warming temperatures brought out bigger—and hungrier—mosquitos which, deprived of animal blood, attacked us in furious droves. Another day, we couldn’t complete our sailing to Ittoqqortoormiit, one of the most isolated settlements on Earth, because the fjord was blocked by chunks of dripping, broken ice. There’s something about hearing the sonic boom of glaciers calving while you’re on a cruise eating caviar that makes you question your life choices.

Aerial panoramic view of Ilulissat Glacier
See it while you can? Well, it may already be too late.

It will take a while before I’m ready to venture to Greenland again, but if I do, it will not be by ship. Adventure tourists and aurora chasers should consider booking with a small, responsible tour group that travels mostly by land (or kayak), such as Albatross Arctic Circle, Pink Peak Tours, Two Ravens, and Nuuk Water Taxi. Not only will you have more authentic opportunities to interact with locals and immerse yourself in Greenland’s native culture, your visit will support the country’s nascent home-grown tourism industry, which can provide new jobs for out-of-work hunters and fishermen and demonstrate the value of protecting an ecosystem that’s been under manmade and natural pressure for far too long. Your conscience will be lighter, too; flying in an airplane and staying in a hotel typically emits less than half of a cruise’s CO2 emissions over the same distance.

Though Greenland is notoriously difficult to navigate on your own—towns and villages aren’t connected by roads or railway and there is only one passenger ferry, Sarfaq Ittuk—air travel is about to become a lot easier. The capital, Nuuk, is getting a new international airport with expanded Air Greenland service to Canada this year. Intrepid travelers can camp under the northern lights, paddle to crumbling Norse settlements, and feel the ice crunch under their boots as they hike along the Arctic Circle. This is Greenland at its best—wild.

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