In the space of a couple of years, two disasters happened in Iceland. Firstly, the financial crash in 2008, when the banks collapsed and the Icelandic krona dropped 35 per cent against the euro. Then, in 2010, Eyjafjallajökull erupted for the first time in 180 years, causing massive disruption to European air travel and making sure everyone took notice of Iceland.
Happily some good came out of the chaos: these two big news stories helped put the country on the map. With extra assistance from Instagram – also established in 2010 – which acted as a shop window for Iceland’s spectacular scenery, news soon got around that this was the place to go. Plus, it was cheap and it had real volcanoes! In just seven years, the tourism industry quadrupled: from 459,000 in 2010, to 2.1 million in 2017. Tourism has become the country’s largest industry, with 2020 targets hit early.
Now that the country has recovered from the crash, it is no longer such a bargain place to visit, which means the spike in tourists has abated. Although the massive boom might be over, tourism is now growing at a more sustainable and manageable level. This year the industry is expected to expand by 10 per cent and tourism chiefs have a chance to look at the product and plan strategically.
It is also providing fertile ground for the attractions industry. Led by entrepreneurs, two major attractions launched last year, both of which are inspired by and aim to complement the natural wonders by providing interpretation and education.
Bardur Gunnarsson, managing director of LAVA, an Icelandic volcano and earthquake centre, says the development of these attractions is a sign of a more grown-up tourism industry: “Eight years ago it wouldn’t have been possible to have created an attraction like LAVA. It was a bit like the wild west here, but now the tourism industry has become more mature.”
Selling the off-season
Iceland has a great deal to recommend it: the natural wonders of the northern lights and beautiful scenery; the volcanos and geothermal baths are a geographer’s paradise; the abundant wildlife to spot, including seals, whales and puffins; as well as adrenaline activities like hiking, ice climbing, skiing and cave exploring.
Gunnar Sigurðarson, manager of Visit Iceland & Creative Industries, says the main focus is consolidation rather than growth, making sure the offer is strong to boost visits in the off season and spread tourism across the country, rather than just the south, where Keflavik airport is located.
“Tourism is now the largest revenue generating industry: more than the fishing industry and aluminium sectors together. When Promote Iceland started, tourism was the third largest industry and far behind the two others,” says Sigurðarson. “Our focus over the past years, in cooperation with the tourism industry, has been to decrease seasonality and promote regional destinations in Iceland. From the government point of view, now the goal is not to grow the number of travellers visiting the country, but to ensure we build the skills, capacity and quality.”
Currently, Iceland is seen as a winter destination: 42 per cent come in the colder months, 26 per cent in the summer, 19 per cent in the spring and 12 per cent in the autumn. Promote Iceland is keen to even this out and so marketing efforts will be focused solely on the off-season, prioritising the wider regional destinations, particularly stimulating growth in rural areas.
The Promote Iceland website has created a brand identity for the seven different regions including the unspoilt wilderness of the Westfjords, the lava fields and mountains of the north and lush forests and farmlands of the east.
“We predict visitors will increasingly focus on visiting Iceland during winter and we will see the total number further increase,” says Sigurðarson. “We have put more emphasis on our marketing efforts to educate and inform visitors before and during their stay about Iceland’s fragile nature, responsible travel behaviour, local culture and Icelandic peculiarities.”
To this end, visitors are asked to observe the Iceland pledge, which includes being responsible, not venturing off the beaten track, using campsites rather than wild camping and taking care when photographing its natural splendours. There is even an Iceland academy on the website where would-be visitors can learn about everything from staying safe on glaciers to hot tub etiquette.
Sigurðarson believes demand will remain robust and that the attractions industry will play an important role in continuing to draw people to the country, as well as to educate them and instil respect for its environment. “Manmade attractions can make a huge impact,” he says. “For example, LAVA is not only thought of as a tourist attraction, but an educational exhibition for Icelanders, where they can learn the science of Icelandic geology.”
Although there have been news reports of some airlines dropping services from the UK to Iceland, the country still has flights to 80 destinations and is seeing a rise in Spanish tourists because of direct flights to Spain. In response to more tourists from Asia, it is only a matter of time before direct flights are set up with Asian countries.
Bringing nature to guests
Launched in 2017 by two friends who saw an opportunity, the Perlan Museum celebrates Iceland’s natural wonders, through large-scale exhibits and the latest research and scientific findings. Noteworthy experiences offered include a view of Reykjavik from the 360-degree observation deck, taking a walk through the world’s first indoor ice cave and feeling the force of an earthquake.
Founder and CEO Gunnar Gunnarsson says the aim of the museum is to interpret nature for tourists and Icelanders. “We wanted to create a huge exhibit, the biggest and best in Iceland,” he says. “But you can’t copy nature. Our idea is to bring nature to guests in the best way possible. We try to replicate some natural phenomena through virtual reality and stories. We allow our visitors to touch ice and educate them about protecting it.”
The disappearance of glaciers is leading to enormous change both in Iceland and around the world. The first exhibition, the Glaciers and Ice Cave Exhibition, presents the history of glaciers, shows the lifeforms which live on them, their effect on the landscape and what will happen when, or if, they disappear.
A second exhibition opened in May, Land, Coast, Ocean, and it is based on earthquakes and volcanos, with highlights that include a life-size replica cliff, and virtual reality fish and birds. Work is already underway on the third attraction, a cutting edge, 150-seat planetarium, which has been designed by Bowen Productions and will launch in the autumn.
“This will be one of the first planetariums in the world to have 3D sound,” says Gunnarsson. “It will present a show about Icelandic nature and feature both the Northern Lights and the Southern Lights as they appear from space.”
Funded by investors, the museum cost £25m to develop and Gunnarsson says that each year £1.5m will be invested to keep it updated. He says the growth in tourism has allowed this project to come to fruition. “The growth in tourism has provided us with a fantastic opportunity. With more tourists we can invest in more attractions, which gives Icelanders the opportunity to learn more about their country.”
Learning about nature
According to LAVA’s managing director Bardur Gunnarsson, Iceland attracts a special kind of tourist: “Almost everyone who comes to Iceland is interested in nature. They are quite adventurous and want exciting experiences, but aren’t willing to take risks. They want controlled, safe environments. They are keen on learning and like good guides and exhibitions.
“There are now a few great attractions in Iceland. Into the Glacier paved the way.”
Into the Glacier offers various tours to Iceland’s most significant new attraction, a man-made ice cave. The ice tunnel and the caves are located high on Iceland‘s second largest glacier, Langjökull, so there’s the opportunity to explore the glacier and see it from inside.
“It talks about glaciers, how they behave and global warming,” he says. “And the Lava Tunnel in Raufarhólshellir is also a beautiful project. It was a lava cave which was being impacted by tourism, so was closed to protect it and now they offer guided tours about geology.”
Another landmark development, LAVA was established in spring 2017 to give the inside track on volcanos. An educational, interactive exhibition depicting volcanic activity, earthquakes and the formation of Iceland, it has been developed with the support of the Icelandic Meteorological Office and the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management.
LAVA’s Gunnarsson says the project was led by entrepreneurs who felt there was a huge need for some educational exhibitions: “Volcanoes are one of the biggest attractions of Iceland and our guests didn’t really know that much about them. They stand on the black sand beaches and gaze at them without understanding the magnitude. We wanted to create an attraction which could interpret volcanoes, within their vicinity.”
With dwell time of around 45 minutes, the attraction features two parts: an exhibition with interactive exhibits including a lava corridor, and an earthquake corridor. It concludes with a movie on the latest eruption.
“By far our biggest market is tourists, but we also hope it will spark an interest in volcanology among Icelanders, especially schools,” says LAVA’s Gunnarsson. “It is a great place to start a day sightseeing: have a coffee and a lecture and head further east so you understand what you are seeing. Alternatively, when the days are short in winter, visitors can come to reflect on what they have seen.”