Flying to Greenland is set to become easier for US passengers thanks to a new flight route that should significantly reduce the journey time.

Greenland, the world's largest island, has many draws for visitors: dramatic scenery, northern lights, Viking settlements, polar bears, festivals, and whale watching. The downside: getting there isn't easy, especially for US passengers. The only direct flights are through Iceland and Denmark and passengers typically have to plan for long transfers and a layover.

That process could improve in summer when Icelandair operates a new route to the Arctic island from Iceland that should make the trip shorter and easier to manage for people coming from the US and Canada.

Arch iceberg in Greenland
Greenland's dramatic scenery is a big draw for visitors © Henri Vandelanotte/Shutterstock

Typically passengers coming from North America arrive in Iceland's Keflavik International Airport and then have to make the journey by car to Reykjavik City Airport to catch a flight to Greenland, usually factoring in a three- or four-hour transfer or an overnight layover.

Starting June 1,  Icelandair will move two of the Greenland flights from Reykjavik City Airport to Keflavik International Airport, flying to Nuuk (Greenland's capital and largest city) and Ilulissat (home to the Disko Bay icebergs and a UNESCO World Heritage site).

This means that when passengers from North America arrive in Iceland, they can depart to these destinations in Greenland from the same airport they've landed in without having to traipse across the country to get to Reykjavik airport for a connecting flight. 

What's more, Icelandair has timed departures to and from Greenland in Iceland so they complement the US and Canada flight schedules.

"The Greenland schedule from Keflavik is ideal for US connections," Michael Raucheisen from Icelandair tells Lonely Planet. "The flights to Greenland depart early morning after arrivals from the US and Canada, and on the return leg they'll arrive back in Keflavik before departures to the US and Canada." 

Next year, the process will be simplified even further when Greenland finishes renovations on airports in Nuuk and Ilulissat to accommodate direct international flights from Europe and North America.

Dog sledding with huskies in beautiful sunset in Greenland
As tourism grows in Greenland, the tourist board is emphasizing traditional experiences like dog-sledding ©Getty Images/iStockphoto

While improved connectivity will no doubt help boost the economy, there are concerns about the impact the growth of tourism could have on Greenland's traditional ways of life and the environment as the country moves to accommodate more arrivals by air. The impact of climate change is visible almost everywhere in Greenland with the ice melting faster now than any time in the past 12,000 years

Speaking at a conference hosted by travel industry news site Skift in March, Visit Greenland CEO, Hjörtur Smárason, said "climate change is the big story, and then you need to fly [to Greenland]. It creates this contradiction."

While getting there isn't exactly sustainable, Smárason said Greenland is rethinking tourism on the ground with minimal climate impact by investing in local experiences, food and unique attractions like dog-sledding. Greenland is also gradually developing infrastructure that can accommodate the local population and growth in visitor numbers without overwhelming the country.

Getting to Greenland by air

Air Greenland and Icelandair are the only two airlines operating international flights to Greenland. Due to the huge distances, travelers have to fly directly to the city they wish to visit as there are no roads or trains between towns in Greenland. Visitors who want to visit multiple destinations within Greenland can fly domestically with Air Greenland, or book a trip on one of the west coast's inter-city passenger ships in summer.

During summer there are daily flights to Kulusuk, Ilulissat, Nuuk, and Narsarsuaq from Iceland with Icelandair. Flights to Nuuk and Ilulissat will depart from Iceland's international airport starting in June, while flights to Narsarsuaq and Kulusuk will depart from Reykjavik domestic airport. During winter, Icelandair primarily serves Kulusuk, and Nuuk. From Denmark (the most popular option with three-quarters of Greenland passengers transiting through Copenhagen), there are flights to Nuuk, Ilulissat, Maniitsoq, and Sisimiut with Air Greenland. Typically 10 flights run weekly from Copenhagen.

The airport in Kangerlussuaq is undergoing renovations as officials work to determine how it will operate in future and if it will primarily serve domestic or international passengers. Flights from Denmark mainly go through Kangerlussuaq and take domestic flights to other destinations such as Sisimiut and Maniitsoq.

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