Explainer

Why Is Everyone Going to Iceland?

How Reykjavik successfully managed the pandemic and brought tourism back.

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
A man takes a selfie in Iceland.
A man take a selfie in front of the lava field on the Reykjanes Peninsula in Iceland on March 28. Sophia Groves/Getty Images

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In June, more than 42,000 people packed their suitcases and boarded flights not to tropical beaches or resorts but to a much colder alternative: Iceland.

Tourists often flock to Iceland for its erupting volcanoes and northern lights, but these sights aren’t the country’s only draw right now. After a year of closed borders, social distancing, and Zoom calls, Iceland also offers a coveted glimpse at normalcy. Life on the island has returned to the way things were before the pandemic—and with open doors and low infection rates, the country has become an especially attractive vacation destination.

As global border restrictions slowly ease, Foreign Policy looked into how Iceland’s approach to beating the virus and safely reopening for tourism can serve as a model for the rest of the world.

In June, more than 42,000 people packed their suitcases and boarded flights not to tropical beaches or resorts but to a much colder alternative: Iceland.

Tourists often flock to Iceland for its erupting volcanoes and northern lights, but these sights aren’t the country’s only draw right now. After a year of closed borders, social distancing, and Zoom calls, Iceland also offers a coveted glimpse at normalcy. Life on the island has returned to the way things were before the pandemic—and with open doors and low infection rates, the country has become an especially attractive vacation destination.

As global border restrictions slowly ease, Foreign Policy looked into how Iceland’s approach to beating the virus and safely reopening for tourism can serve as a model for the rest of the world.


Is life actually back to normal in the country now?

Pretty much. Iceland lifted all domestic restrictions on June 26 and was the first country in the European Union to welcome vaccinated visitors in March. Ever since, life on the island has returned to normal—there’s no more mask wearing, social distancing, or limits on gatherings.

“We are regaining the kind of society which we feel normal to live in and we have longed for,” Svandis Svavarsdottir, Iceland’s minister of health, declared in June.

They were able to reopen safely too. Iceland, which has reached herd immunity, has some of the world’s highest vaccination rates; 70 percent of people are fully vaccinated, and as of June 28, 87 percent of adults had received at least one dose. The country’s vaccination success is an extension of what has been an overwhelmingly effective pandemic response: Not only did it manage to avoid lockdowns, but it also only had 30 deaths. 

Reykjavik’s response stands in sharp contrast to other rich countries that have similarly loosened restrictions, even as the virus continues to rip through the unvaccinated. On July 19, Britain celebrated its reopening, “Freedom Day,” with almost 40,000 new cases, 19 deaths, and the world’s seventh highest death toll.


Why is tourism important, and what was Iceland’s approach to bringing it back?

Tourism is a major part of Iceland’s economy—and an industry that suffered during the pandemic. The sector accounts for 39 percent of total export revenue, comprises about 9 percent of the country’s GDP, and employs almost 16 percent of the country’s workforce.

 As much as the return of tourism would have been economically beneficial, there was an understanding that controlling COVID-19 was a necessary first step. From the beginning, it’s been kind of goal number one to get the pandemic under control,” said Johannes Por Skulason, managing director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association.

And now? “We have reached a place where we have one of the best vaccination percentages in the world right now,” Skulason said. “We can use that to our advantage.”


Much of the world is still struggling to contain the coronavirus. What did Iceland do differently?

Iceland’s pandemic response was primarily led by public health experts—not politicians. “In the beginning, the science was very much at the helm,” Skulason said, who noted that the country’s government and health officials worked closely, and constructively, together.

With health experts taking the lead, the country implemented a strict contact tracing, testing, and quarantining system to suppress COVID-19 infections before they became full-fledged outbreaks. “The restrictions were quite firm at the beginning of each wave so [as] to grab it right away before it spread out,” said Snorri Valsson, a specialist at the Icelandic Tourist Board.

For the most part, the public was also receptive. “We’ve had a very, very high percentage of trust towards the health directorate and the government in the response that they’ve made,” Skulason said. Some of this trust also comes from Iceland’s past experiences with natural disasters, which fostered unity and solidarity in the face of crisis—and informed the country’s pandemic response. 

“The nation was ready to do everything that had to be done,” said Bjarnheidur Hallsdottir, chairperson of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association. “We followed every rule and did everything we were told to.”


What was Iceland’s vaccine rollout like?

Very efficient, likely a result of Iceland’s highly centralized public health care system. Unlike countries like the United States, where many people initially scrambled to secure shots, Icelanders received text messages notifying them of their vaccination appointments.

“I just got a text one day that said, well, we have some extra portions of AstraZeneca vaccines. You can come to this place in 30 minutes. Be there in 30 minutes. We’ll vaccinate you,” Skulason said, who described an assembly line-esque vaccination system involving hundreds of people. “Henry Ford would have been really impressed. … The process itself was just beautiful.”

And most people wanted the shots. “We’ve had nowhere near the same levels of backlash as many other countries, certainly not anywhere near what you’ve been seeing in the U.S.,” Skulason added, who noted that vaccine misinformation—while still there—didn’t gain much traction. 


How much of this had to do with Iceland’s location and size?

Part of Iceland’s success can be attributed to its geography: The island is isolated, a geographic advantage that has prevented the virus’s cross-border spread. 

Home to just 368,792 people, Iceland is also sparsely populated and tightknit—qualities residents believe lead to a greater sense of community and social responsibility. (Everyone is, in fact, so closely related that some Icelanders developed an app to help people confirm they aren’t dating their close relatives.) 

“One of the strengths of the society is that it’s somehow easy to activate this sense of community and sense of partnership,” said Gudrun Pora Gunnarsdottir, director of the Icelandic Tourism Research Centre.


What’s travel like now, especially with the delta variant?

There are currently no COVID-19-related travel restrictions for visitors who can supply proof of vaccination or prior infection, although pre-registration is required. Unvaccinated travelers, on the other hand, have a few more hurdles they must meet before entering the country. 

The delta variant has resulted in a spike in cases—but only one person in Iceland has been hospitalized, and few are reportedly experiencing serious symptoms. Most of the infected individuals are fully vaccinated.

In response to the rise in infections, Iceland’s minister of health announced that starting July 26, all visitors—including those who are vaccinated or have already contracted the virus—will have to provide a negative COVID-19 test to enter the country.

“We’re in a kind of a new era now,” Skulason said. “We’ve had most of the population vaccinated, and now the government will have to decide how they want to proceed into the next few months.”

And if variants like the delta variant continue to pose new challenges?

“We would nip that in the bud if needed—but in society here, things are back to normal,” Valsson said.

Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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