Gimli developed after a series of natural disasters forced Icelanders to leave their island between 1874 and 1876. It became the mother colony of several North American Icelandic settlements. Some 200 people arrived near Gimli in October 1875 to settle New Iceland, a tract of land outside the boundaries of Manitoba reserved for their use by the Dominion government. They named their settlement after the Hall of Gimli, known as “paradise” in Norse mythology. The settlers experienced extreme hardships — such as smallpox, flooding and religious differences — which led to out-migration. However, they also developed schools, a newspaper, a fishing industry, and a self-governing colony with a sophisticated constitution. New Iceland came under Manitoba’s jurisdiction in 1881, and by the late 1890s the area was receiving Ukrainian, Polish, German and Hungarian immigrants. Willow Point, south of town, is the original landing site of the Icelandic settlers.
Farming, fishing and mink ranching shaped Gimli's early economy, but an air-force base established during the Second World War was a major boost. The local economy diversified substantially after the base closed in 1971. The Seagram Company (since 2001, Diageo Canada), with its distillery and warehouses, and a fibreglass manufacturer are major employers in the area. Tourism and the service sectors also provide substantial employment. The commercial fishery is also still an important part of the economy.
Gimli’s tourism appeal includes its beach, harbour and Icelandic heritage. It has been a popular location for cottage development since the 1960s. In 1991 a resort complex opened. The New Iceland Heritage Museum (2000) is one of the province’s theme museums. Each summer Icelandic culture and heritage is celebrated during Islendingadagurinn (Icelandic Festival of Manitoba).
On 23 July 1983 Gimli Airport was the landing site for the “Gimli Glider.” The Gimli Glider was an Air Canada Boeing 767 en route from Montreal to Edmonton. It ran out of fuel over Red Lake, Ontario, and glided to a safe landing at Gimli.