In what could soon become a model of pandemic international travel, Iceland announced earlier this month that it is now accepting fully vaccinated travelers from the United States.
Those with proof of a vaccination that has been approved by the European Medicines Agency, which includes Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson, may travel to Iceland without taking a COVID-19 test before departure (although you are required to take a rapid test once reaching Iceland) or quarantining. A COVID-19 test will still be required for entry back into the United States.
Shortly after the country’s decision was made, Delta announced it would be introducing a new Boston to Keflavík route beginning May 20. A spokesman for Delta declined to share booking data, but said in general the market for leisure travel is increasing. At Icelandair, which also runs a Boston-Keflavik route, a spokesman said the airline is seeing strong demand from US travelers
While Iceland is the first European country to open without quarantines, Greece just announced it’s also opening its borders. The country’s tourism minister, Harry Theoharis, said on April 20 that tourists are welcome if they have either been vaccinated or have antibodies or test negative. The number of countries opening with those restrictions in place is expected to increase throughout the spring and summer. Israel will begin to gradually reopen in May and French President Emmanuel Macron told CBS News that France will open to vaccinated travelers by the end of May.
Iceland’s reopening does not mean that tourists are allowed to strut about maskless or in large groups. Rules about mask wearing and social distancing remain intact there, as do occupancy caps at businesses.
Given its isolated location and low population density, Iceland saw far fewer deaths and infections than other European countries. By mid-April the country reported 6,329 cases and 29 deaths. We talked with Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, head of Visit Iceland, about the country’s experience with the virus and the decision to open to American tourists.
Q. Walk me through the process of what it will be like when Americans land at Keflavík. Will they present their vaccination card and their passport, and then be allowed to enter?
A. When you arrive at the airport, you need to show your vaccination card with one of the approved vaccines. You’re required to take a rapid test at the airport. The results usually take about five or six hours, and during that time you need to stay at your accommodation until the results are in.
Q. We heard a lot about how countries in Europe were hit by the virus, but not a lot about Iceland. What has it been like there over the past year?
A. I think people have generally followed the instructions about social distancing and, of course, Iceland being the least densely populated country in all of Europe, we have a lot of space, so that’s why it’s perfect for social distancing here. We have been fortunate in how well we have managed to keep a somewhat normal daily life in Iceland, considering the circumstances. For example, there’s never been a complete lockdown here in Iceland.
Q. I’m guessing the decision to reopen is based on how vaccinations are going in specific countries.
A. Exactly. We can feel a sense of increased optimism when we see how well vaccinations are going. It’s great to hear the news coming from the United States, for example, how well vaccinations are going there. We also have positive news with vaccinations here in Iceland. We are seeing that in just a few weeks’ time, we have vaccinated everybody 60 years and over.
Q. How much of a hit did your economy take when tourism disappeared?
A. This had a huge impact on the economy. But fortunately, because we have done well in recent years and the economy was in such a good shape, the government was able to use the resources that we had to tackle the economic impact of the crisis. Tourism grew into being the largest industry in Iceland. In 2010, for example, we had 500,000 tourists. But in 2018 and 2019, we had 2 million tourists. So, you can see, it grew really fast. It was the biggest influence in how fast Iceland was able to rebound after the financial crash in 2008.
Q. Were there any complaints or pushback from the residents of Iceland about allowing tourists from other countries to come, even though they’ll be vaccinated? Was there any fear of opening?
A. There has been apprehension here. I’m sure people want to be very careful. And then the nature of the pandemic is, of course, there’s so much uncertainty. So I think we in Iceland have experienced apprehension, like other destinations. But because people generally trust the science of vaccinations, there has been an openness to the idea.
Q. You mentioned the tremendous growth of the tourism industry in Iceland. There was an increasing sentiment that over-tourism was becoming a problem in Iceland. Did the pandemic give you an opportunity to look at the issue and rethink your approach to tourism at all?
A. The growth we saw raised the tension. Because there’s so few of us here, we have 360,000 residents and 2 million tourists, people also assume that the country must be overrun. But then you need to add the third column, which is the geographic size of Iceland. We have a country of 103,000 square kilometers (equivalent to about 40,000 square miles). There are a few spots in Iceland where you see a lot of tourists, and I sometimes use the example that if you are standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, you will see a lot of tourists there. We don’t assume that there’s an over-tourism problem in France.
But there were so many other places in Iceland that we want to get more tourists to visit. And that has been a huge part of our strategy in recent years. We tried to encourage people to travel all around the seven regions of Iceland. And also try to diminish the seasonality and introduce Iceland, all year round, to people. And those two measures are very important to try to fight this notion of over-tourism. A third part, which has been really a big focus for us, has been to approach responsible traveling, because I know that you have traveled to Iceland, so you know it can be a bit different from other destinations. And the nature should be raw and accessible.
The locals they want to welcome tourists to Iceland. They also want tourists to behave want to educate our visitors. How are you supposed to travel around Iceland, to get the most of it, but also to be respectful? And we have marketing campaigns, and have the Icelandic pledge, where people can read about how to travel responsibly and pledge to be a responsible tourist.
This interview has been condensed and edited.