In April 2019, more than 120,000 travelers came to Iceland – in April 2020 there were exactly 924: After years of immense growth, Icelandic tourism has practically come to a standstill in the Corona crisis.
For the North Atlantic Island with its just 360,000 inhabitants, this means a billion loss this year. But the little Viking people in the far north remain optimistic – even if the way back to the tourist numbers of previous years is a long one, as is well known in Reykjavik.
The numbers have been rising steadily and steeply for almost a decade. The eruption of the volcanic glacier Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 suddenly brought international awareness to the island, and by 2018 the number of foreign guests had skyrocketed from almost 500,000 to more than 2.3 million. In 2019, the value leveled off at around 2 million – a stable number that the Icelanders wanted to keep in the long term in order to be able to make tourism around their geysers, waterfalls and hot springs sustainable.
But then Corona came. Due to the pandemic and the associated restrictions, flight cancellations and closed borders, hardly any passengers landed at Iceland’s international airport in Keflavik near Reykjavik in the spring. The 924 guests in April were the lowest number of Iceland visitors since 1961, according to the radio station RÚV. May was also meager: just 1035 travelers arrived in Keflavik in the month, a decrease of 99.2 percent compared to the same month last year.
“There were actually very good signs for 2020 – if Covid hadn’t struck,” says Visit Iceland head Sigrídur Dögg Gudmundsdóttir of the Icelandic tourism authority. The fact that the 2019 figures will be reached this year is already ruled out. “In the past few months we have practically dropped to zero,” says Gudmundsdóttir.
As elsewhere, the crisis particularly hit the restaurant owners, hoteliers and tour operators, which the Icelandic government is trying to compensate for with relief measures: For example, companies can defer their tax payments until next year, and taxes on hotel accommodation will not be incurred until at least 2021. But it is already clear by the half of the year that the losses will be great: According to Gudmundsdóttir, tourists from abroad will have 383 billion crowns in 2019 – the equivalent of just under 2.5 billion euros – in the coffers. For 2020, it is now expected that around 250 to 300 billion crowns (1.6 to 1.9 billion euros) will be lost.
“We don’t know how many tourists will come to Iceland this year. I am not even sure that we can reach the 600,000, »says Icelandic Minister of Tourism Thórdís Kolbrún Gylfadóttir. At the most popular sights on the island, people were worried about the maximum number of travelers that could be allowed there. «We were concerned about possible overtourism in certain places. Now we’re more worried about under-tourism. »
After the particularly violent Corona months of spring, however, discreet hope is sprouting in Reykjavik that tourism will also pick up again. On the one hand, there have been virtually no new infections among Icelanders for weeks, and on the other hand, international travel is picking up speed again.
“This was a shock, but we know that we will be able to get back on our feet,” said Minister Gylfadóttir confidently. Iceland is also dependent on the fact that the corona situation is better elsewhere, for example in the USA – US citizens are the largest group of Iceland travelers every year before the British and Germans.
Upon entry, the Icelanders found a way to keep their island as corona-free as possible without the tourists staying away from the virus: since mid-June, arrivals have been able to have their arrival in Keflavik tested on Corona and thus the otherwise applicable 14 – escape daily quarantine. Cost for the traveler: converted between 57 and 70 euros.
Upon arrival, everything from hotel accommodation to car rental and dining out will be as normal as is possible in Corona times, Gudmundsdóttir from Visit Iceland assures. You can travel around without restrictions and take advantage of the fact that Iceland is more sparsely populated than any other country in Europe. “Our population is comparatively small, but Iceland has the area of a third of Germany. It is very easy to experience nature all by yourself without large crowds. » After a moment’s thought, she says: “It’s the perfect place for social distancing.”
But the industry not only focuses on foreign tourists, but also on the changed travel behavior of the Icelanders themselves. Before Corona, these only made up about every tenth traveler in their own country. Gudmundsdóttir now sees a larger increase in domestic travel – and one of the few positive effects of the crisis. «Suddenly we are traveling through our own country in larger numbers than before. And at the same time, we discover what tourism has brought in terms of services and infrastructure, »she says. “It is good that we value our country more.”