Without ships, people reaching Iceland would have been impossible. The very first Icelanders, after all, appeared there by sea, their Viking longboats kissing the shores as recently as 870. From there, boats have been fundamental to the island’s fortunes in bringing horses from Europe, troops from the US and countless fish from the icy North Atlantic. Ships have even burrowed themselves deep into the Icelandic lexicon. As one popular local saying vividly puts it: “All sails do not suit every ship.”

 In more recent years, this island nation’s relationship with seafaring has taken on an even more dramatic bent, not least when it comes to tourism. Think about the numbers: in the summer of 2022, 185 cruise ships called at Reykjavik, the island’s capital, with 40% more arrivals predicted in 2023.

Altogether, work by Statista has found that Iceland’s total cruise revenue was $2.2m in 2022, a figure expected to reach $5.2m by 2027. Iceland is not the only nation in this beautiful, desolate corner of the world to experience similar growth. Greenland, for example, saw over 450 calls in the past year, with travellers drawn to its bewildering collection of icecaps and fjords. More to the point, there’s plenty of evidence, from costly port investments to dynamic new schedules, that insiders across the region are battling to grow this bounty further.

Even if the cruise ships hope to provide opportunities for operators and locals alike, still worries remain. With such delicate natural environments, fringed by volcanoes and rocks, are Iceland and Greenland able to welcome today’s cruise ships? To put it differently, might the sails of contemporary cruising simply not fit the ship? Local enthusiasts would certainly disagree. Buoyed by new technology and dovetailed by the thoughtful management of existing infrastructure, they’re fighting to show that modern vessels can float seamlessly into even the remotest of Arctic ports – no matter how fragile the surrounding ecosystem.

Lay of the lands

If you look at a map of Iceland, you’ll quickly notice a necklace of civilisation forms with 90% of people living around the island’s coasts. And in a way, argues Sigurður Jökull Ólafsson, this duality hints at the soaring popularity of his country more broadly. That begins, explains the marketing manager at Associated Icelandic Ports, with an unbridled sense of wilderness.

“The size of the country is four times Denmark – about the size of England and Wales put together – and only about 360,000 live here,” Ólafsson says. “There is quite a lot of unspoiled nature.” In all that open space, you can find a range of individual marvels. That’s clear everywhere from the Blue Lagoon – where visitors can wallow in 37°C temperature waters while they’re surrounded by mountains – to the awesome power of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

And there’s plenty to beguile, even where nature rules supreme, as Iceland and its Greenlandic neighbour also present plenty of cultural pursuits. Consider Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, with its bijou wooden houses and shops selling coats made from musk ox fur. Reykjavik, crisscrossed by gourmet restaurants and bars, is similarly appealing. These Arctic destinations are blessed by other advantages too. Snugly located between the Old World and the New, they’re ideal layovers for transatlantic travellers.

Thanks to careful and generous investment, both Nuuk and Reyjikavik have plenty of space for aspiring cruise operators. In Iceland, to give one example, Reykjavik currently has two cruise docks. The first, Miobakki, allows passengers to walk to the city centre, meanwhile the second, Skarfabakki, is easily accessible by car. In the east of the country, the port of Seyðisfjörður boasts two berths and a purpose-built terminal – all despite having a population of less than 700 people.

Beyond the headline call numbers, at any rate, this thoroughbred offering is reflected in the activity of specific cruise lines. Celebrity is just one of the major operators planning trips to Iceland this year, while Viking plans several forays around Greenland. A new arrival on the circuit, for its part, is Explora Journeys.

“The size of Iceland is four times Denmark – about the size of England and Wales put together – and only about 360,000 live here.”
Sigurður Jökull

Part of the MSC group, it will offer passengers comprehensive trips across Greenland and Iceland and promises what Chris Austin, the chief sales officer at Explora Journeys, calls “completely different” experiences from the more established cruises in the Mediterranean or Caribbean. It’s clear that Austin and his team are keen to connect passengers to the places they visit, highlighting their maritime locations along the way.

“You can fly to Reykjavik, and you can stay in a hotel, and you can do similar things,” he says, “but there’s no more magical way of arriving [at] a destination than by sea”.

Land of ice and snow

Beyond that vivid act of arriving, indeed, it’s clear that Explora Journeys is eager to get its passengers to feel the ice and snow. Study the operator’s itineraries and the Arctic’s benefits once again unveil themselves. One day, guests can go bird watching. Another, they can go kayaking. A third, they can visit the Westfjords Heritage Museum, found on a narrow spit to the north of the island, and learn about the region’s rich maritime history

“I think there’s no better way [than a cruise] to discover somewhere like Iceland or Greenland.”
Chris Austin

At the same time, Austin takes time to emphasise the ‘Journeys’ part of his employer’s name. Taking full advantage of their mid-Atlantic locations, Greenland is included in the itinerary on the route from Europe to the US. As Austin explains, passengers can start in Hamburg and take a 24-night voyage all the way to New York – more adventurous travellers could continue on to Quebec and Maritime Canada.

The number of cruise ships that docked at Reykjavik in 2022.
Iceland Monitor

Yet, if both islands give plenty of reasons to get out and about, it would be wrong to imply that locals are totally comfortable with the influx. The region may be well-equipped for cruise ships big and small. Back in 2017, researchers grumbled that cruise vessels around Reykjavik were negatively affecting air quality, while a more recent study claimed that sulphur emissions in the local harbour were equivalent to those generated by 3,000–5,000 cars.

The estimated worth of Iceland’s cruise industry by 2027.

None of this is ideal in a place replete with nature’s wonders, with dolphins and humpbacks both common here. These environmental pressures are shadowed by quality-of-life questions. For instance, due to the lack of public bathrooms, Icelandic officials have found some desperate travellers end up defecating outside. In Greenland, locals are increasingly worried about the impact of cruise passengers on Inuit communities, pointing to the fact that fleeting seaborne visits offer few opportunities for them to make money.

To be fair, experts are clearly not oblivious to these challenges. When it comes to infrastructure, for instance, Ólafsson describes how the local government is encouraging smaller ships to call at Akranes, a port town some 25 miles from Reykjavik. A 40-minute drive from the city it may be, but Ólafsson stresses that this makes it more convenient for a range of more rural sites.

And if that could also go some way towards relieving environmental and societal concerns, so too could the Environmental Port Index (EPI). Due to be expanded this year, it borrows from the Norwegian model and will essentially rate visiting cruise ships by their carbon emissions, offering discounts to the cleanest vessels entering Icelandic harbours. “We believe,” stresses Ólafsson, “that this will incentivise environmental behaviour in the ports”.

Green with envy

Certainly, cruise operators themselves seem to be taking these mandates seriously. Once more, Explora Journeys offers an excellent case study here, with Austin noting that the operator’s current ships have extra space for battery units, while future launches will include hybrid power generation. Of course, none of that can directly help the region’s more vulnerable residents, but you get the sense that the more thoughtful, bespoke experiences offered by the likes of Explora Journeys could encourage travellers to discover the unchartered territories in these beautiful countries – and connect with local communities. As Austin puts it: “I think there’s no better way to discover somewhere like Iceland or Greenland.”

And if you listen to the experts, it seems obvious that more people will have the chance to discover them soon. For one thing, Ólafsson argues that investment in better port infrastructure will continue, if nothing else because there are obvious advantages for other industries like fishermen too.

Then there’s the geopolitical context. Now that war in Europe has frightened many operators away from the Baltic, the safe if stormy North Atlantic could soon gather up the slack. That’s echoed by longer-term plans. Apart from the work at Akranes, Reykjavik is currently developing a new cruise terminal of its own, alongside three new gangways. Further north, Nuuk’s airport is getting a longer runway, an improvement being copied in the Greenlandic town of Ilulissat. In short, the sails may not suit all ships, but they surely work fine here.