New Greenland Int’l Airport Nears Completion — but is Greenland Ready?

Perched on the tip of a fiord in Baffin Bay, Nuuk cuts a pretty picture. Greenland’s capital city exists as a bright patchwork of colorful houses, art and history museums, and cold, clear seawater.

It’s home to less than 20,000 people — and, soon, a large-scale international airport.

Kalaallit Airports first confirmed plans to build terminals and runways in Nuuk capable of operating direct flights from North America and Europe in 2023. Completion is now only five months away, with a grand opening set for Nov. 28.

The ‘right’ kind of tourists

It’s a huge development for a small city, and for a country with only one current international airport, at the remote former U.S. military base of Kangerlussuaq. From here, you need to hop on a small prop plane to get anywhere else in Greenland, including to its capital, Nuuk.

Kangerlussuaq airport

Greenland’s current international airport, at remote Kangerlussuaq. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


Yet Greenland experienced its busiest tourist season ever last year, hosting about 130,000 visitors. (By contrast, Iceland draws about two million per year.) Greenland’s most popular draw is the town of Ilulissat, which features a fiord stuffed with mammoth icebergs.

Greenland’s economy still relies heavily on fishing. While some acknowledge that diversifying into tourism could benefit the country, they also worry about too many tourists crowding into a sensitive ecosystem without much travel infrastructure.

Ilulissat Ice Fiord

A tourist enjoys the view of the Ice Fiord in Ilulissat. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


“As an industry, we knew that mass tourism would never work — it wouldn’t work for the locals, and it wouldn’t work for the tourists,” Stine Selmer, a sustainability consultant who also runs her own travel company, told “It would cannibalize our product.”

That product, unequivocally, is the sprawling landscape of Greenland, the world’s largest island.

greenland mountains

An aerial photo of Greenland. Photo: NASA/GSFC/Michael Studinger


Selmer also mentioned the country’s tourism industry wants to attract the “right” kind of people: adventure travelers with an appreciation for nature.

That’s clear from most of the travel opportunities, which revolve around trekking, coastal tours, and natural attractions like the Northern Lights. Regulation is relatively strict — especially in Northeast Greenland National Park, the world’s 10th-largest protected area, where a well-funded expedition recently got sent packing when members couldn’t show permits.

Pristine lands, frozen progress

But a high-volume tourist inflow could overwhelm resources. It’s not difficult to comprehend the relative wildness of a country almost as big as India, with about 25,000 times fewer people. It’s a balancing act for a country where reindeer and whales still dominate landscapes of rock and ice, but forward progress is slow.

Oil exploration is illegal in Greenland, and the government has treated mining with scrutiny. In 2021, it blocked one of the planet’s largest planned rare-earth mines due to the possibility of radioactive contamination.

“We need to have more growth,” Mute B. Egede, Greenland’s prime minister, told The New York Times. “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.”

Of course, tourist dollars could help improve life for Greenlanders. Because roads don’t connect towns to one another, most residents travel domestically by air. Other new planned airports in Qaqortoq and Ilulissat could make it a little easier to visit distant friends and relatives.

“I think everybody, in Nuuk, at least, is just looking forward to having this airport because it means less wasted time, more direct business, political, and social connections,” Tanny Por, head of international relations at Visit Greenland, told “Everything will be more connected in that way.”

It will have to catch up first. Air Greenland, the country’s government-owned commercial airline, said it could face scaling challenges ahead of the Nuuk airport update.

“It is preparing for the new infrastructure, both geographically — as we need to change the hub — and physically, as we need to relocate people and equipment,” CEO Jacob Nitter Sørensen told Aviation Week. “Additionally, it is getting ready with new equipment, processes, routines, procedures, products and schedules — essentially everything.”

Game changers

As it grows, Greenland only needs to look to its closest international travel companion for a cautionary tale. Iceland exploded in popularity following what some considered an incautious tourism campaign in the 2010s. It now faces overcrowding and landscape degradation.

Regardless, Kalaallit Airports officials herald the new facilities in Nuuk with high expectations.

“We believe the airport will be a game-changer, not just for Nuuk but for the entire country,” said Kalaallit Airports managing director Jens Lauridsen. “The grand opening and celebration will underscore the significance of this historic event.”

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson spent his 20s as an adventure rock climber, scampering throughout the western U.S., Mexico, and Thailand to scope out prime stone and great stories. Life on the road gradually transformed into a seat behind the keyboard, where he acted as a founding writer of the AllGear Digital Newsroom and earned 1,500+ bylines in four years on topics from pro rock climbing to slingshots and scientific breakthroughs.