Arctic Winter Games a coming of age for Greenland

Arctic Winter Games a coming of age for Greenland
Nuuk by night: the Greenlandic capital of 17,000 is no stranger to the Northern Lights.Photo courtesy of Tourism Greenland.

It may not come as a shock that the world’s least-populated country has limited accommodations for visitors, but this much is clear: do not arrive in Nuuk, Greenland on Mar. 6 expecting to find a room.

Averaging just three people per 100 square-kilometres, though that includes the massive ice sheet covering all but the coastal areas of the world’s largest island, Greenland bills itself as an isolated Nordic country able to fuse its traditional Arctic roots with contemporary amenities.

Those include a limited number of hotel rooms in the capital city of Nuuk, population 17,000. Like the rest of the country’s towns and villages, Nuuk is fly-in only.

“It will be the greatest amount of people in Nuuk at the same time ever,” 2016 Arctic Winter Games general manager Maliina Abelsen told the Journal. “So we have to use all the public schools where participants are going to sleep, and we’ve booked all of the hotel rooms in the entire town. It’s a great opportunity for the town to say, ‘Are we actually ready to receive a lot of tourists? Are we ready to welcome people?’ ”

In fact, Abelson and her team are trying to limit the number of people coming into the community for the duration of the games, March 6-11.

“It’s not that we don’t want a lot of visitors and parents and media, but we do not have any more hotel space,” she said. “We can’t say, ‘We’ll do something else, find hotels in another town.’”

There were about 850 participants at the 2002 games that Nuuk and Iqaluit co-hosted; when the 2016 event starts there will be twice that many athletes and about the same number of volunteers: 1,700, equal to 10 per cent of Nuuk’s population.

Finding enough volunteers is a concern as well, with so many people already working in jobs essential to the event’s success, in hotels, restaurants and hospitals.

Alaskans and Canadians will land at Kangerlussuaq Airport in Qeqqata, built by the U.S. military in 1941 and boasting the country’s largest runway, then board smaller aircraft  – 37 of them in just nine hours – to fly about 50 minutes south to the Nuuk airport, which is too small to accept larger planes.

“It will be the biggest exercise for Air Greenland ever,” she said. “That’s a very logistically challenging job.”

The volatility of marine weather in Greenland’s coastal communities is known to cause even more havoc with air travel than conditions in Nunavut or the NWT.

“What will they do if they get stuck there for hours?” she said. “There’s only one air company so it’s not like you can say, ‘I’ll just find another one.’ It’s a problem if it would be more than a thousand participants getting stuck somewhere.”

She added that the challenges are part of the charm and character of the AWGs.

“It’s happened so many times when you go back in the history of the games,” Abelsen said. “It’s part of it, it’s part of the excitement. You don’t want it to be too exciting, so we try to plan as much as possible.”

On top of being a test of the country’s travel and accommodation infrastructure, the AWGs offer Greenland, which achieved partial independence from Denmark in 2009 and is working on full independence from the ancient kingdom, a chance to brand and promote its unique character.

Abelsen said it is the Greenlandic people’s affinity for their traditional activities, including hunting and fishing, and their ability to combine it with the modern that sets them apart.

“Even though people have high education and they’re doctors or whatever, they go hunting,” she said. “It’s something that is part of the tradition that people really enjoy a lot.”

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