From volcanoes and geysers to glaciers and waterfalls, the iconic landscape of Iceland is arguably unparalleled, not only in Europe but globally.
Iceland. A sparsely populated North Atlantic island nation, home to just 340,000 people, it has risen to pre-eminence as one of the 21st century’s touristic phenomena. Topping bucket lists and entrancing visitors from far and wide, the country has become reputed as the home of some of Northern Europe’s most wonderous natural beauty.
“Iceland is a small country, but it has an abundance of attractions,” states Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, Managing Director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF).
“From Reykjavík, you only need to travel a short distance to get close to the solitude of black sand beaches, colourful rhyolite, fountain apple-moss, sheep, horses and puffins. You can almost smell the national history – our ancient heroes will come to life in every part of Iceland if you let them, while local foods like tender lamb and age-old recipe-perfected langoustine will make you lick your lips.”
Arguably Iceland’s biggest draw, however, is the breathtaking views that the country’s unique natural landscape provides, with volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls and geysers found north to south, east to west. Þór Skúlason affirms: “For most visitors, time spent in Iceland is an adventure of never before seen landscapes and once in a lifetime experiences during the never-ending days of midnight sun or under glowing northern lights in the dark of winter.”
THE BUSINESS END
Prior to the economic crash of 2008, Iceland was renowned as one of the economic marvels of Europe and indeed the world. A major producer of renewable energy and a key player in the fishing market with consolidated global trade links, the country maintained consistently high growth rates with low inflation and unemployment. In the wake of the financial crisis, however, Iceland, like much of the rest of the world, was in crisis. Yet from 2010 onwards, this crisis began to meet its resolution, largely owed to the country’s major tourism boom – an industry that has risen to replace fishing as the single most important economic contributor.
“We largely focus on Reykjavík as a centre of business travel where we have quality conference facilities including Harpa and five-star hotels, but there are many further opportunities in the countryside as well,” explains Þór Skúlason, referencing SAF efforts to uphold and promote the industry.
“Iceland is proud of its reputation for reliability, high-tech infrastructure and service excellence. Even though it’s an island, it is centrally situated between continents and offers good connections to North America and Europe.
“When it comes to the MICE sector, we have high hopes for the future. Iceland has built up the aforementioned reputation and accessible flight connections to and from North America and Europe over several years, as well as the new mantra of MICE travel: Unconventional.”
TOURISM INSIGHTS: THE ICELANDING TRAVEL INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION
SAF has been key to facilitating growth in Iceland’s thriving tourism sector. Having established itself as the mutual vehicle of Icelandic companies operating in the field of travel and tourism, its purpose is to promote and protect common industry interests.
“Within SAF we aim to ensure that Icelandic tourism is based on respect for the country as well as the people who live here, seeking to represent the overall interests of the tourism industry,” reveals Þór Skúlason. “Its operating conditions need to be competitive in every sense. It is also important to educate people and promote security and environmental matters; above all we want tourism in Iceland to be known for its professionalism and quality.”
Speaking in depth with the organisation’s Managing Director, we discover what Iceland is really like from a local perspective, and what leisure and business travellers can expect from the country both now and during the course of the coming year.
Q&A WITH JÓHANNES ÞOR SKÚLAUSON
Since inception, how has SAF developed and progressed in terms of its key objectives and the messages it tries to get across?
Jóhannes Þór Skúlason (JS): The essence of SAF’s operations is protecting the total interests of Icelandic tourism, which has changed substantially in recent years. Today it is the biggest line of work in regard to both foreign earnings and employment in Iceland, and SAF has an important role in communicating with the government and lobbying for a more competitive environment for Icelandic tourism companies. Iceland has been building up tourism as a year-round industry and increasing the number of quality destinations and experiences all over the country, and SAF is focused on working together with all parties to promote professionalism and quality.
Are there any specific attractions, landmarks or places to eat and drink that you would recommend?
(JS): In Iceland we have clean water, low air pollution and access to renewable energy, an area in which Icelanders are leading globally. Tourism and agriculture are closely connected, and, in many places, you can find high quality accommodation, excellent food and recreational activities in the same place. That way you also get to meet the locals in their natural environment, see where the cod is caught, lamb is reared and the skyr (like thick yoghurt) is made, not to forget the ice cream which Icelanders eat as much on cold winter days as lukewarm summer days. It is hard to say how many places serve food of some kind, but we have close to a thousand restaurants all around the country. Hot dog is a famous fast food, but slow cooked food and fine dining built on high quality local ingredients is what will capture your heart. Food tourism has grown and gained attention globally along with an increased awareness of gourmet-cooking, local food and culinary culture. Increasingly, travelers are choosing to connect to the places they visit, instead of only exploring the landscape and man-made structures. Food tourism is a way to experience a particular place or a region through its local food and drink. An emphasis is placed on local ingredients and production methods that make the area unique. Thus, restaurants strive to create dishes out of local ingredients, and you will find ambitious local restaurants in even the most remote villages in Iceland. It’s a taste worth the trip. Whale watching at sea is also highly appreciated by many visitors, with minke whales, dolphins, humpback whales and even blue whales if you are ready to go far enough from the mainland. The sea is a large part of the Icelandic identity and it’s a chance to enjoy the rich seafaring experience of our island nation.
What trends are transforming the tourism industry in Iceland at present? How are you responding to these trends?
(JS): Iceland as a destination is in fierce competition with other destinations for the favour of tourists. We need to continue to build tourism in Iceland, which compares with the best in the world, with professionalism, quality and safety as our guidelines. Adventure tourism is growing in the world and increasingly attracting travellers who want to experience nature, activities and adventure. In Iceland, there are ideal conditions for practicing adventure tourism, but in recent years companies have sprung up all over the country offering world-class entertainment. You can go for walks and world class mountain hikes, enjoy whale watching, snorkelling or diving, quad biking and snowmobile tours, walk on and into the glaciers, lower into a cave and walk inside the lava fields or bathe in the lagoons and hot springs around the country. Icelandic adventure tourism and destinations have been gaining international recognition in recent years; this year two of them have been mentioned internationally as top destinations in the world. The Lonely Planet Travel Guide has chosen north Iceland’s Arctic Coast Way as one of 10 essential European destinations to visit in 2019. Launched in June 2019, this new route will take you away from the crowds and into the beauty of the north, winding its way along 800 kilometres of coastline, through 22 villages and breathtaking landscapes. For those seeking an authentic Icelandic experience, renting a car and heading up north is the way to go this summer. TripAdvisor’s 2019 Experiences Trends Report showed that outdoor activities are on the rise and number four on the top 10 list of over 200,000 experiences worldwide is a snorkelling tour in Silfra lava canyon in National Park Thingvellir. According to TripAdvisor it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience of diving between the country’s tectonic plates. Of course, these are just two of hundreds of excellent destinations and experiences Iceland has to offer, and their awards recognise the overall quality and professionalism of Icelandic tourism.
How do you see Iceland developing as a business travel hub over the next year to two years?
(JS): Iceland has always inspired curiosity, an important element for successful conferences, incentive tours, and other business functions. MICE visitors continue to elevate the Icelandic economy. In 2017 we welcomed an estimated 120,000 international MICE travelers, a number that has been growing steadily since the opening of the Harpa conference hall and convention center in Reykjavík in 2011. In recent years air passengers have increased considerably in Iceland. The country’s location between America and Europe has made more and more people stop over in Iceland on their way across the sea. These are passengers who can use short stop times to meet customers, hold meetings or experience Iceland in a short time. This tourism market is growing rapidly and there are great opportunities for the country to service this market.
Are there any plans or projects in the pipeline that you wish to highlight?
(JS): Winter tourism has been growing in Iceland in recent years. When you come to Iceland, you don’t expect a heatwave. You may even know that it might snow in the highlands in July! The wild weather does attract some people who want to experience the biting frost and the chill – and that we can pretty much guarantee in the wintertime, even though Icelandic winters are rather mild compared to many other Arctic regions. Short days, clear skies and the right chemistry is also likely to reveal the magic of aurora borealis, the dancing colourful lights in the sky, so you simply want to lie in the snow and gaze upwards. When you return home, your friends should be able to see the remains of the northern lights in your eyes because at its best it is a unique experience. But some people are more down to earth and prefer skiing in the slopes up north. Please don’t forget to go swimming in the warm geothermal public swimming pools or nature baths around the country, because that is a sport which we love all year round. From the pool we go directly to the shop for a delicious and well-deserved ice cream to make up for the loss of calories spent sitting in the hot tub – or cold tub if you feel like testing your inner Viking. A visit to Iceland in the wintertime is a true adventure.
Are you optimistic about the future of the tourism industry in Iceland?
(JS): In recent years, Icelandic tourism has experienced immense growth. In 2010 we had 500,000 visitors, but this year we are expecting more than two million which is incredible considering our population of 350,000 inhabitants. We think we have dealt well with this growth, taking in both the challenges and opportunities, but the growth is slowing down, and the number is stabilising. We believe that tourism in Iceland has a long and prosperous future because we focus on professionalism and quality. The destination Iceland is now firmly on the world map as a beautiful and unique place to visit due to our nature and culture that attracts visitors. We are very optimistic for the long-term future of Icelandic tourism and look forward to welcoming visitors from all over the world in the coming years and introducing them to the nature and experiences of Iceland, the adventure island.
HARPA IN FOCUS
One of Reykjavík’s architectural spectacles and most distinguished landmarks, Harpa has brought a new dimension to Iceland’s cultural life and conference scene since opening in May 2011. The name Harpa was selected from 4,156 proposals entered by 1,200 citizens. Translated, it is an old Icelandic word referring to a specific month in the old Nordic calendar, the first day of this month being celebrated as the beginning of the summer season. Having received the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture, also known as the Mies Van der Rohe award, the concert hall and conference centre has become a social hub of the country, drawing millions of international visitors for a series of major events.
It is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Icelandic Opera and the Rejyjavík Big band and hosts numerous music festivals each year such as Reykjavik Arts Festival, Reykjavik Jazz Festival, Sónar Reykjavík, Tectonics and Harpa International Music Academy.
Further, European Workplace Innovation Network (EUWIN) 2011, European Association of Behaviour and Cognitive Therapies (EABCT) 2012, You Are in Control, VestNorden, Peace Congress in Reykjavik, Poptech and Via Nordica are just some of the prestigious conferences to have been held at the facility in the past eight years.
Special Tours Wildlife Adventures operates whale watching, puffin watching, sea angling, RIB Express, new year’s fireworks cruise and the original Northern Lights by boat tours – all from the city centre of Reykjavík. The firm takes take great pride in offering customers unique experiences at sea with a highly skilled and friendly crew as well as an experienced guide on every tour. Special Tours also owns and operates the spectacular Whales of Iceland exhibition in Reykjavík, where 23 life-size whale models are exhibited with in depth information about whales, ocean conservation, underwater film and interactive experiences. More information on www.specialtours.is.
Iceland’s glacier lagoon, Jökulsárlón, located approximately 370 kilometres east from Reykjavík, is said to be one of the country’s greatest natural wonders. Huge blocks of ice continue to break away from the glacier resulting in the presence of icebergs such as Breiðamerkurjökull in the 250-metre deep lagoon – the deepest lake in Iceland.
Blue Lagoon Iceland is renowned for using the powers of geothermal seawater to create transformational spa experiences for all. Described as an otherworldly wonder in the heart of a volcanic landscape, the site that’s a 50-minute drive from Reykjavík also provides accommodation and culinary experiences for tourists.
Operating 11 hotels across the country, Keahotels is one of Iceland’s largest and most esteemed hotel chains. The facilities combined are equipped with a total 900 rooms, serviced by more than 300 employees all year round. Keahotels has also been in the Group of Outstanding Companies since 2013, owed to its reasonable rates and exceptional offerings.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
At a glance, navigating your way around Iceland’s alpine terrain may appear to be a daunting task. But with a bit of research, it’s easy to see that it is a relatively straightforward undertaking thanks to the abundance of available, modernised transport links.
“There are no trains in Iceland, but we have many small airports and two domestic airlines with scheduled flights from the capital to the countryside,” states Þór Skúlason. “There are also excellent car rental and bus services, and many travelers like to make their own agenda with a rented car, but others prefer scheduled bus tours with a guide in the front seat to share local information with the newcomers.”
In this sense, both air and road travel pose as attractive options, while both are also fantastic in their own right as ways of seeing the country’s iconic landscape from aerial and lateral perspectives.
Þór Skúlason adds: “The roads here weave through fields of grass and lava, through tunnels and over mountains, and just travelling around the ever-changing landscapes is a unique experience in itself.”