Arctic Tourism and Urban Growth

Bert De Jonghe

This essay is an excerpt of Inventing Greenland by Bert De Jonghe. Published by Actar Publishers

The ongoing airport expansion in Ilulissat, briefly discussed in the first chapter, offers a useful moment to examine the town’s history and potential future growth patterns resulting from its new airport and the increasing numbers of tourists. As part of the ongoing reorganization of Greenland’s aeroscape, significant improvements in airport infrastructure can strengthen an airport and town’s pivotal position and create momentum across different infrastructural scales and urban spaces. In Ilulissat, this process of growth is also intertwined with its neighboring ice fjord, propelling the tourism industry in the city and the broader region.

Ilulissat, 2021.
UNESCO World Heritage

Ilulissat, which means “iceberg” in Greenlandic, is one of Greenland’s leading tourist destinations thanks to its close proximity to the nearby ice fjord. The UNESCO World Heritage–listed Ilulissat Icefjord is located on the west coast of Greenland, about three hundred kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, and covers a large area where the Greenland Ice Sheet flows out to sea via the Jakobshavn tidewater glacier, known locally as Sermeq Kujalleq. Researchers have studied this large glacier for over 250 years, which has contributed to scientists’ understanding of the world’s rapidly changing climate (Bosson et al. 2019). Next to the forty-kilometer-long ice fjord sits Ilulissat, a scenic town of 4,670 people. Here, the almost continuous calving of the ice front, the icebergs’ large size, and their proximity to the town create an urban landscape in which ice is distinctly front and center. However, the icebergs have long been seen by tourist organizations and foreign agencies as so sublime that their aesthetic value has been privileged over Ilulissat’s urban landscape and local culture, leading tourists to expect an “untouched and human-free landscape” (Smed 2017). This perspective is also apparent in the World Heritage Committee’s decision to inscribe the Ilulissat Icefjord on the World Heritage List.

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