The president of Iceland will be in Maine next month to show his support for Eimskip, the Icelandic shipping company that has made Portland its North American hub for trans-Atlantic container service.

President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson will be the keynote speaker May 31 at Maine International Trade Day. He is expected to talk about business opportunities that may be created as global warming shrinks the polar ice cap.

The gathering, held at the Marriott at Sable Oaks in South Portland, is the largest annual event for the Maine International Trade Center, a quasi-state agency formed in 1996 to help Maine’s businesses develop overseas markets and sales.

Grímsson, whose island nation is just south of the Arctic Circle, will discuss how the receding polar ice cap will make resources such as iron ore, gas and oil more accessible and open northern shipping routes between China, Europe and North America, said Janine Bisaillon-Cary, president of the Maine International Trade Center.

Grímsson wants to make Iceland a trans-shipment hub, said Larus Isfeld, general manager for Eimskip USA. Although the new shipping routes are still years away, Maine could benefit, he said, with Eimskip now providing direct cargo service between Portland and Iceland.

“It could make the connections from Asia into Portland better than they are today,” Isfeld said.
Grímsson’s visit will provide a great opportunity for Maine’s business community to learn about Iceland and northern Europe, Bisaillon-Cary said.

“Matched with the fact that our transportation lanes are now open to these areas, it’s not just a pie-in-the-sky, theoretical thing,” she said. “It’s something we can learn from and possibly participate in.”

Gov. Paul LePage, who will attend the event, will meet with Grímsson, said Bisaillon-Cary.

Grímsson’s staff in Iceland said he was not available for comment Monday. He returned to Iceland recently from Washington, D.C., where at a global forum he called for an expanded role for China and other Asian countries in the future of the Arctic.

Last week, China and Iceland signed a free-trade agreement that lowers tariffs on a range of goods and is expected to boost Iceland’s exports, mainly seafood.

A polar shipping route would cut one-third of the distance off the current trip between China and Europe. Last year, China sent its icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, on its first transpolar voyage.

Grímsson, 69, has been Iceland’s president since 1996. Elected by popular vote, the president serves as head of state and has little political power.

However, the president has the power to put a law passed by Iceland’s parliament to a referendum.

Grímsson was the first president to use that power, refusing in 2004 to sign a law to create a government-controlled committee to regulate freedom of speech. The government withdrew the law before a referendum could be held.

Last month, Eimskip began moving its American port of call from Norfolk, Va., to Portland. Over the past several weeks, its cargo ships have been coming to Portland from Iceland via Norfolk.

On Tuesday night, an Eimskip container ship is due to arrive in Portland directly from Iceland for the first time. By next month, the transition will be complete and container ships will be sailing between Portland and Iceland every two weeks, with stops in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, Isfeld said.

On May 31, Eimskip will host an afternoon reception and a tour of Portland’s International Marine Terminal for its shipping customers and for attendees of Maine International Trade Day.

The day’s events, including workshops and other speakers, will be open to the public. The cost is $75 for members of the Maine International Trade Center and $95 for non-members.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at tbell@pressherald.com

Twitter: TomBellPortland