Interview with Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, Head of Visit Iceland
An Interview with the head of Visit Iceland on the pandemic and the challenges Iceland’s tourism face today.
Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir is head of Visit Iceland, the official tourist information of Iceland. We talked to her about how the Covid-19 pandemic affected tourism on the island and what Iceland was able to learn from it.
Iceland’s tourist numbers began skyrocketing in 2011 and peaked in 2018, when over 2.3 million visitors arrived – more than six tourists for every local – leading to popular places like those along the Golden Circle being temporarily overcrowded. What did Iceland learn from the overtourism and what measures could be taken to welcome large numbers of tourists, without them feeling at an overcrowded place?
Tourism in Iceland grew fast in the last decade. This led to a strain while we were building infrastructure in both service and experience, but tourism has developed into a thriving industry with a clear vision of sustainability. The government has defined a future goal for Icelandic tourism of becoming leading in sustainable development in 2030 with benefits for locals in all regions, profitability above tourism numbers, balance between conservation and utilization, and unique experience, quality and professionalism. The government has increased funding into strengthening tourist sites and implemented initiatives such as creating carrying capacity indicators for assessment at the most visited sites.
Over the last years Iceland has managed to maintain one of the highest NPS scores of destinations in the world. Iceland is a vast country, the least densely populated country in Europe so even though there’s a crowd at a certain site at a certain time during the day, that doesn’t mean the whole country is overcrowded. The high NPS score indicates that even though tourism grew fast for a period, visitors have continued to be happy with their experience and we look forward to welcoming them again.
“I think many Icelanders were pleasantly surprised to discover their country as a vacation destination”
The Covid-19 pandemic caused most travelling to come to a sudden stop. How did that affect the Icelandic tourism sector and are there any positive effects from it? Could domestic travel make up for the missing guests from abroad?
The tourism sector in Iceland was hit hard like in other countries and it was especially evident in Iceland since tourism was the largest export industry and accounted for over 15% of the workforce. The government mitigated Covid effect on tourism by various measures. The domestic market in Iceland is small compared to our neighboring countries due to how small the population and will never be able to make up for international visitors. It, however, helped enormously when Icelanders travelled around their own country during the pandemic. It was most evident during the summer of 2020 and 2021 but we have also seen a rise in domestic winter trips like skiing and cross-country skiing for example. I think many Icelanders were pleasantly surprised to discover their country as a vacation destination with great activities, accommodations and restaurants on offer in all regions.
“Sustainability is an overarching theme in everything we do, and our visitors are happy to take that journey with us.”
Iceland is one of the world leaders when it comes to social and environmental sustainability. In that regard: What is the significance of sustainable tourism in Iceland and what do you think should “sustainable” include?
Tourism is very important to Iceland and creates exciting jobs around the country. It is important to include the social impact when discussing sustainability, allowing for local communities to benefit from the destination’s popularity. Sustainable tourism also requires respecting nature which visitors have happily committed to by signing the Icelandic pledge. For environmentally conscious visitors, we have also launched a carbon footprint calculator on our webpage at www.visiticeland.com so that they can compare their options and make climate positive choices regarding their trip. Sustainability is an overarching theme in everything we do, and our visitors are happy to take that journey with us.
Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir is the Head of Visit Iceland. She has been with Visit Iceland for six years and has been working on different aspects of promoting destination Iceland since 2010. Before Visit Iceland she worked at Visit Reykjavík promoting the capital region and before that she managed a tourism cluster in Southeast Iceland called the Vatnajökull Region. Before she started working in tourism she was a journalist at the largest newspaper in Iceland, Fréttablaðið.
What are the lessons Iceland could learn from the pandemic and how did Covid-19 influence Iceland’s future tourism policies? Will there be more investments towards a more sustainable tourism?
I already mentioned the future vision for tourism in 2030 about becoming leading in sustainable development. Looking at the big picture in Iceland then all buildings, including hotels, in Iceland rely on 100% renewable energy for both electricity and space heating. Completing the energy transition requires solving the issue of transportation as well, for example by providing charging stations at hotels around the country. This infrastructure is currently being put into place, while it represents a significant investment, it is in line with Iceland’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2040. Icelandair and Landsvirkjun, the national power company, are also collaborating on finding solutions for domestic aviation, testing both electrical flights and green hydrogen as a fuel for planes.
What are the biggest challenges you and your department face in 2022 und 2023?
There are concerns here, like in other countries, about recruiting staff and financial status of tourism companies after the last two years. There is however general optimism, and we experience strong interest in Iceland as a destination.