Skift Take

In some parts of Iceland, odds are you're more likely to meet a tourist than you are a local. The country doesn't want to lose its cool, progressive, and beautiful Nordic edge that's fueling demand. That's why it's successfully worked to promote its offseason and use humor and relatable language in its marketing campaigns.

Hundreds of the travel industry’s most-forward-thinking executives will gather for our third annual Skift Forum Europe in London on April 30. In just a few years,  Skift's Forums — the largest creative business gatherings in the global travel industry — have become what media, speakers, and attendees have called the “TED Talks of travel.”

Focusing on responsible travel practices and other key issues, Skift Forum Europe 2019 will take place at Tobacco Dock in London. The Forum will feature speakers, including CEOs and top executives from British Airways, IHG, Thomas Cook,, TripAdvisor, Silversea, Uber, and many more.

The following is part of a series of posts highlighting some of the speakers and touching on issues of concern in Europe and beyond.

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Some 40,000 tourists are in Iceland on any given day exploring the attractions and landscapes that have increasingly attracted movie stars and tourists alike during the past decade.

Many countries would consider 40,000 daily visitors insignificant. But since Iceland’s population is only 338,000 and more than a million tourists visit each year, tourists are taking up more space and resources, spurring tourism officials are to get ahead of the imbalance.

Hiring more workers for Iceland’s travel industry is part of the country’s plan to manage tourism growth. Nearly 8 percent of the population current works in the travel industry. “In 2012, we had around 11,000 people working in tourism, today we have 26,000 people working in the industry,” said Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir, director of Visit Iceland & Creative Industries at Promote Iceland. “Of course, this also has its challenges.”

Pálsdóttir said Visit Iceland has had found that explaining serious tourism concepts in humorous ways to tourists has worked well. “We’ve been very authentic in our marketing,” said Pálsdóttir. “In reality, what’s really been pushing the tourism industry forward in Iceland is the public-private partnership and where we’re heading.”

At the upcoming Skift Forum Europe in Berlin on April 26, Pálsdóttir will discuss challenges facing European tourism and how tourism has quickly become the backbone of Iceland’s economy.

What follows is an edited version of a recent Skift interview with Pálsdóttir.

Skift: Iceland went from being a mostly undiscovered destination to one of the world’s most aspirational places to visit in less than a decade. What are you doing to manage all this visitor growth and popularity?

Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir: What we have been focusing on for the past few years is increasing tourism in the offseason. We used to promote just the middle of June to middle of August. When we started thinking about offseason, the numbers grew rapidly. About 60 percent of people who come to Iceland come in the offseason, but before we started to promote the offseason it was around 40 percent that came during winter from September to May. Most of our growth has been in the winter.

We’re also focusing on increasing the number of people going to other regions in Iceland. All of our regions have a lot of variety. The tourism industry is the largest revenue generating industry for Iceland and this has been a game changer for the country.

Growth has slowed somewhat during the past year but the growth hasn’t been negative. Iceland tourism officials started a destination management program in 2016. Basically what is being done is analyzing both what tourists are doing and visitor profiles for each of the seven regions of the country. Another aim is trying to see how locals want to see their regions develop and draw out an identity in that sense.

There’s not one thing you can pinpoint on why Iceland is so popular. We’ve had a lot of press on Iceland and a lot of films have been filmed here. Airlines and tour operators have played a part. We’re also not afraid of showing the harshness of the weather in Iceland which I think has worked well for us.

Skift: What do Icelanders think of all the tourists and the global buzz around their country?

Pálsdóttir: Locals are proud of our country and proud of tourism. Many tourists go to Reykjavik city center. It’s a big deal for us to now have more variety of restaurants and boutique stores in Reykjavik after almost all stores were closed after the economic crisis. Now Reykjavik is completely different. The city has put a quota for how many restaurants and stores they want in the city center so that it doesn’t become too overcrowded. Reykjavik has also put limits on how long an Airbnb property can be rented.

Skift: What is Iceland doing to better incentivize people to work in tourism or become more interested in the industry and how it impacts their lives?

Pálsdóttir: We haven’t really started doing something like that and we haven’t really needed to do that to be totally honest. Just this week one of the hotel chains in Reykjavik sent out a thank you note to employees for taking great care of our visitors, but there’s not been any active promotion towards working with the industry.

But of course, at the universities, tourism education is getting more important. We’ve been talking about being considerate towards the country and society because everyone talks about being sustainable but not everyone understands what that means. Being considerate is something that’s more relatable, at this point. Everyone in the industry is saying sustainability but as a tourist, you’re not going to say I’m going to be sustainable. You’ll more likely say that I’m going to be considerate.

Skift: That’s a great point. How has the government and private sector worked together to get that point across about being considerate as a tourist?

Pálsdóttir: In 2010, the private sector and government joined together after the volcanic eruption. Today we’re still a public-private partnership and we’re focused on promoting Iceland as a year-round destination. We’re also trying to inspire responsible travel behavior. Campaigns have been focused on different regions but also on things like how to take a safe selfie.

We use phrases like “I will take photos to die for, without dying for them” on our Visit Iceland site and our Inspired By Iceland Academy. Icelanders also felt that they needed to see that we were doing something to help people understand the difference between traveling here than other parts of Europe. The private sector has been vital in getting the message across.

We have a tourism task force that’s a public-private initiative. We have monthly meetings with our stakeholders and talk about how we can actually do this better at the seven regional marketing offices around the country.

Skift: Thinking ahead to the upcoming summer season and your plan to get more tourists to visit more remote parts of Iceland, is their enough infrastructure in place to accommodate tourists when they get there?

Pálsdóttir: Iceland tourism companies are also investing in infrastructure and activities in various regions. For example, in Western Iceland, they have been building a glacier tunnel and that’s been a big investment. In another region, a new cave has also been developed for people to visit. A new geothermal area also just opened up for people to visit.

Because of the tourism industry, one small town has been able to keep its school open and build more restaurants in the area. More small towns are booming because of the tourism industry. These are regions that perhaps wouldn’t have the same quality of life without tourism. It’s been a game changer for many because living in remote parts of Iceland wasn’t a dream before. Tourism has also had an impact on our fishing industry too as more people get involved with tourism.

Don’t miss Visit Iceland’s Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir on stage at Skift Forum Europe.


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Tags: iceland, sfe2018, skift forum europe

Photo credit: Director of Visit Iceland and Creative industries Promote Iceland, Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir, will speak at Skift Forum Europe 2018 in Berlin on April 26. Visit Iceland

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