Q&A With Ryan Connolly, marketing & environmental Manager and co-owner of Hidden Iceland

Q&A With Ryan Connolly, marketing & environmental Manager and co-owner of Hidden Iceland

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As the world slowly emerges from its yearlong COVID-19 shutdown, destinations around the globe are beginning to reopen and welcome visitors once again.

One of the most notable announcements on this front came in mid-March when Iceland revealed that vaccinated tourists from around the world, including the US and the UK, would be able to visit without having to quarantine as of March 18. Travelers who have been vaccinated or who have recovered from COVID-19 will all be granted entry. This access is available specifically to those who have received one of the European Medicines Agency-approved vaccines, which includes the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson shots.

This is an exciting and important step forward on multiple levels. Travelers around the world are thrilled by the news. And for those in Iceland’s tourism industry, it is light at the end of the tunnel after a long, challenging year, which saw the country’s tourism industry experience a 79 percent decline. It’s also a very bold move on Iceland’s part, as the country is making the decision to reopen its borders well ahead of the European Union.

With all of these angles in mind, FTA recently spoke with Ryan Connolly, co-owner of Hidden Iceland, a small group tour operator that specializes in personalized trips. Here’s what Connolly had to say about the reopening of the country’s travel industry and what lies ahead for visitors and Iceland itself.

 

 

FTA: Can you talk a little bit about how it felt to hear this news that Iceland would be reopening its borders to those from the U.S. and the UK and what brought the decision about?

RC: In a word, it’s a relief. Though only because Iceland is no longer discriminating between vaccines within and out of the EU. Up until today only people with a vaccine administered within the EU, EFTA, EEA and Schengen Zone were allowed in without quarantine. Now it’s worldwide, as it should be. Effectively, the Icelandic Authorities agreed that an approved vaccine from anywhere in the world is safe. It now doesn’t matter if you’re from France, the US, Argentina or Togo. It’s all the same. So it’s a significant move, Iceland has made its own decision to open up ahead of the EU and Schengen.

Though, on the flip side we are obviously still cautious. Letting in a big influx of tourists all at once, even if they are vaccinated, is a little scary. It only takes one person to be carrying the virus despite being vaccinated to spread it again. Considering Iceland has virtually no cases at the moment, many of the locals want to preserve this status. It’s an understandable concern. However, Iceland will still maintain common sense measures such as banning gatherings above 50 and encouraging mask wearing and social distancing when possible. My company will be following the government guidelines closely too. Thankfully our tours lend themselves quite nicely to social distancing and small groups already. It’s in the name really, Hidden Iceland. In recent days, we’ve seen a big influx of family private tour requests and travel agent bookings. Very few people are asking for communal small group tours these days. I guess empty Iceland on a private tour is quite appealing at the moment.

On a personal note, I am very excited to get back out onto the open road with my guests again. Sharing my passion for glaciers, volcanoes, ice caves, the northern lights and the open nature.

 

FTA: What will the experience be like for visitors who come to Iceland in the very near future – has it changed at all? What can they expect?

RC: The biggest change will of course be the number of tourists. I even wrote an article called Empty Icelandrecently to delve into my expectations for Iceland in 2021/22.

In short, at its peak in 2018 Iceland brought in 2.3 million tourists. But even before the pandemic that number was going down. By 2019 there were barely 2 million tourists and in 2020 we were expecting it to drop even further to around 1.8 million. Obviously the pandemic brought that number drastically further down than expected. But considering Hawaii, which is a fifth of the size of Iceland, welcomes 10 million tourists per year I think it’s safe to say Iceland’s overcrowding rhetoric was greatly exaggerated.

These days, we expect there to be an increase in tourism thanks to the new border rules but with ‘big bus travel’ being a thing of the past and a massively reduced flight schedule I’d be surprised if we welcome more than 400,000 people in 2022. I picked that number very specifically because that’s how many tourists came to Iceland before the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010 and started the trend. It’s quite the coincidence that another volcano, Fagradalsfjall, has started to erupt in Iceland at this turning point. I personally will be going to visit the lava flow as soon as I finish writing these answers today. Not gonna lie, I’m very excited. And a little scared.

Iceland is also maturing as a travel market too. In its high growth phase new companies and guest houses and attractions were popping up daily. Some of these companies, like Hidden Iceland, were legitimate and professional. But many sadly weren’t. Unfortunately many travellers wouldn’t know the difference until it was too late. Thankfully, the Iceland authorities are cracking down on this. A new Travel Guarantee Fund starting in July will protect you, the traveller, from any company going bankrupt with a 100% refund guarantee. Any company who doesn’t pay into this fund will unceremoniously be shut down.

Hiking in the wilderness will also be more protected than before. Guides and companies who just strapped on a pair of crampons without experience and just wandered around with customers into the abyss will also be a thing of the past. In fact, guides moving in a wilderness setting will be required to have glacier guiding qualifications and wilderness first response certificates now. Believe it or not, this wasn’t mandatory before. Now it is. The wilderness areas will be monitored and patrolled by local rangers to an increasing degree too, to protect the travellers, the environment and keep crowding to a minimum. Running a company who exceeds these rules by choice, it is great to see that regulations are making other companies catch up. It would seem having a period of quiet this past year has given Iceland a chance to catch up on the demand.

So basically, coming to Iceland in the near future will be quieter, safer and hopefully even more fun.

 

FTA: Please talk a little bit about how the coronavirus crisis impacted Iceland’s tourism industry overall and your company in particular?

RC: Sadly, Iceland has a tiny domestic tourism market. With a population of only 356,000 people you can see why. So when the borders became restricted it effectively decimated tourism for the year. Considering tourism is one of the biggest revenues for Iceland this was painful. Mass unemployment and companies failing was being seen left, right and centre. Hidden Iceland was of course hit hard too. We were expecting our biggest year of sales in 2020 but instead had to basically go into hibernation. I think we ran maybe 5 or 6 trips in total between March 2020 and January 2021. Considering we would normally do that over the space of two days you can imagine how it impacted us. But, even before the regulations changed at the border, things were looking up. We garnered a new market in recent months with international student travel thanks to our focus on educational guided tours.

 

FTA: How did Hidden Iceland fare among the downturn, how did you manage to survive?

RC: When the pandemic hit, we (Hidden Iceland) were unknowingly well prepared for a fallout. Plenty of cash in reserve and assistance from the government kept us alive and ready to grow again. We of course could never have believed that a global pandemic would be the actual ‘fallout’.

We were preparing for something quite different. A volcanic eruption! We knew that a second eruption like in 2010 would halt operations for anything from weeks to months. So we stayed cautious with spending until we were confident we could survive such a natural disaster. As I said, ironic that an eruption has just begun. Though this eruption is much smaller than expected and mainly lava in an isolated part of the country. So we’re happy that it’s happening (for now). The airport is even still open so hopefully it’ll just become a beacon to entice tourists in the coming months.

On an operational side, one thing that we have changed for the better is our environmental policy. In 2020 we were awarded a quality and environmental certificate from, Vakinn. We have always been environmentally conscious though. In fact, until the pandemic, we were proud to be a carbon neutral company who worked to reduce our impact at all phases. We thought that was enough to be considered a sustainable company. We don’t anymore. Instead, we believe that we have to be more proactive and become carbon negative. That’s why we have now switched our fuel to a supplier who donates to Iceland’s wetland fund. Also, our guides have filled our spare time planting trees across Iceland. I estimate my guides and I planted around 50,000 trees by hand in 2020. That’s not a typo. We filled a lot of long hours doing it. We further intend to finance tree planting days as the season returns in April/ May time.

 

FTA: The coronavirus crisis forced travel industry leaders worldwide to rethink how things were being done and in many cases change or refocus to be more sustainable and cognizant of both environmental issues and the communities that they are bringing tourists to visit. What are your thoughts on the path forward both for your company, for Iceland, and the industry as a whole?

RC:I touched on this a little already but Iceland is moving towards increasing protection of the environment. As of October 2020, you cannot step onto a glacier or go into an ice cave without a permit. These permits are only handed out to sustainable companies with the right qualifications. There’s also a maximum limit of travelers now.

On a crowded day in 2018 you might expect 2000 travelers to squeeze into a fairly small ice cave. Now the absolute maximum is 650, spread out throughout a long day. Trust me, this is very welcome news. There’s also talk of increasing Iceland’s national parks into areas of the country that have little to no regulations or protection. For example, the Vatnajökull National Park, which was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2019 covers around 11% of the entire country. The hope is that this will be extended into the unprotected highlands. If it is approved, which I hope it will, then it will mean over 40% of the entire country will be within protected National Parks and Nature Reserves. There aren’t many countries in the world who can boast those figures.

Overall, I would say that Iceland is doing it’s part in preparing for the return of tourists. I can’t wait to bring my customers back into Iceland again. See you soon!

 

To arrange a package trip with Hidden Iceland you can check out our sample itineraries here. If you are a customer, simply fill out the form and our team will get in touch with a personalised itinerary. If you are an agent or OTA then you can drop us an email at info@hiddeniceland.is to discuss options for your guests. 

 

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