Arctic exploration, Inuit communities, and the future of Greenland’s tourism
What do the polar explorer, Roald Amundsen, and Greenland’s new tourism strategy have in common? Answer: They both built their success around Inuit knowledge and the spirit of exploration. We caught up with Hjörtur Smárason, CEO of Visit Greenland & one of our 2021 CNP Awards Judges, to understand how Greenland is forging a path to recovery that simultaneously celebrates the Greenlandic spirit and creates a sustainable, long-term tourism that benefits and supports their local communities.
Firstly, congratulations on the new role. What’s it been like stepping in as a CEO at a time when the tourism industry is at the precipice of major change?
I have been working with tour operators and authorities on crisis management for a long time. First in Iceland in the economic collapse of 2008 and the eruption of 2010, and later on in Nepal after the earthquakes in 2015. Since then, I have been involved in different crisis scenarios in Africa and the Middle East. I embrace the opportunity given here to not just work on the strategy, but execute it, following it all the way through. I am not just on the sideline as a consultant here, but inside the eye of the storm. The COVID crisis is forcing the travel industry to redefine itself. Our main task now is to understand how perceptions and behaviour are changing and spot opportunities that will emerge. I believe Greenland will come out as an exceptionally interesting destination for the post-COVID traveller with its remote locations and strong focus on responsible tourism.
What’s it like marketing a location that’s not your home country? Do you have any tips for other place leaders who are relocating to a different city or nation on how to find a connection with their new place?
After working internationally as a consultant for over a decade it is not a new situation to me. It has pros and cons. There is a very steep learning curve and a lot of cultural nuances you need to catch. In every case it is about talking to a lot of people from all aspects of life to get the feel of the now, and reading a lot to understand the history, economy, and cultural complexity better. I think my background as an anthropologist has given me some good tools here. On the pro side, I come in with a fresh set of eyes. It may be easier for me to put myself in the steps of the outsider that is coming in as a tourist or investor, and I come in free from all labels that political affiliation, family ties, or previous workplaces can tangle you in and create unnecessary obstacles for broad collaboration and stakeholder involvement.
Looking forwards, tourism is at a crossroads. How has Greenland’s domestic tourism success shaped your recovery strategy?
While crises are always tough to get through, I believe Greenland is really well positioned for the future of tourism post-COVID. It had already been decided to focus on adventure tourism and sustainability in all tourism development and that, combined with the remoteness, wild nature and unique culture, means that Greenland ticks pretty much all the boxes that are expected to be on the rise after the pandemic. We will focus both product development and communications strategies around that, making most of the new rising trends.
How are you using storytelling to drive your story? What ways are you working to weave cultural stories of your Inuit communities into your place brand strategy?
This is one of the things I am diving into at the moment and working out the strategy for. I have a book on my table by the Greenlandic anthropologist, Knud Rasmussen, reading about his amazing dog sledding journey visiting Inuit communities from Greenland to Alaska and the tales and myths that have shaped the Inuit culture. The dependency on extreme natural forces and how they have applied amazing adaptability skills and resilience to survive in an environment that can be so hostile is inspiring. The Inuit are the original polar explorers and no outside explorer survived without applying their knowledge and understanding of the natural forces. Even Amundsen’s success in Antarctica is based on Inuit knowledge from Greenland. This spirit of exploration and respect for the nature we live in will inevitably be a strong element in the storytelling of Greenland.
I read that you’re intending to prepare for 25% year-on-year growth – not as a target, but as a way of ensuring you’re not blindsided by an explosion in tourism. How else are you working to promote a sustainable tourism reset?
Greenland has a population of less than 60,000 people in a country that is larger than the UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy combined. That means two things. One, there is no lack of space. Two, there is no need for mass tourism to make a decent living for the local population. With only 100,000 tourists a year 25% growth is not many tourists and can come with a single new airline or shipping company that chooses Greenland as a destination. The key here is therefore to be well-prepared and try to be one step ahead of the development. There are two new international airports being built which opens up a whole new array of possibilities, but first we need to make sure we have the capacity to receive the tourists in terms of accommodation, activities and methods of spreading them further away from the airports. Quality is more important than quantity and we have the luxury of being able to design tourism almost from scratch based on quality and sustainable thinking for the environment, economy, and, of course, the local communities. This is why the focus is on adventure tourism. There you have both the right type of tourists that fit Greenlandic reality and the right contribution they bring to the communities.
Greenland was unexpectedly thrown into the spotlight a few years ago when Trump offered to buy Greenland. How can places leverage international attention like this to promote their own values?
Due to COVID, Greenland wasn’t able to gain as much from that attention as it should have done, but it definitely put Greenland on the map. Despite the change of presidents, Greenland remains a country of interest to the US due to the geopolitical position of the country. The Arctic is changing faster than any other area on the planet because of climate changes and that also shifts the political importance and balance in the Arctic region. The story of Greenland therefore becomes relevant, not just to some few who are interested in Polar regions but to the general public. It gives us an opportunity to come out with the story of Greenland, of Arctic exploration, and the future of tourism in volatile environments.
And finally, what would you be looking to see in a winning award entry for City Nation Place?
An inward-looking campaign. Place branding is nothing like commercial branding as there is no owner and hence no real control. You cannot just create an ad campaign; no matter how well done the images, slogans and copy are, you need to involve the local stakeholders for it to really succeed. I will therefore be looking for campaigns that manage to do that - that involve all the stakeholders, create a sense of involvement and ownership by the locals, and have a strong connection between the image portrayed and the identity of the people that make the place.