[My story about Iceland tourism first appeared on NBC News)
You’re not imagining it if it seems like everyone you know is either planning a trip to Iceland – or just got back.
The Nordic island nation – population 350,000 – has seen tourism numbers explode from under 500,000 in 2010 to 1.7 million in 2016, with more than 2.4 million tourists expected to visit this year.
Iceland’s stunning glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes, lava fields, geothermal pools and geysers have always been there, of course. But it took global news coverage of the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, cameo TV and film roles for Iceland’s scenery and some quirky tourism campaigns to really grab the world’s attention.
“At first it was crisis communications,” said Inga Hlin Palsdottir, Director of Visit Iceland and Creative Industries at Promote Iceland, “Our tourism industry was having difficult times after the 2008 recession and in 2010 things were just beginning to pick up. Then the volcano starting erupting right before the peak summer tourism season.”
Iceland’s tourism industry and the government banded together to try to save the summer season, eking out a tiny 0.1 increase that year. They continued to work together, with a focusing on raising Iceland’s profile as a year-round destination and getting tourists to venture outside of Reykjavik.
“Before Airbnb was even booming, we had locals invite tourists to their homes. Then we asked tourists to rename Iceland, because the country really doesn’t have that much ice,” said Palsdottir, “Now we have the Iceland Academy,” which is a series of short, offbeat videos on everything from “How to Eat Like an Icelander,” to the essential “How to Avoid Hot Tub Awkwardness.”
Now music fans want to see where Björk, Of Monsters of Men and Sigur Rós came from. TV and film aficionados want to see for themselves the Icelandic scenery that appears in hits such as HBO’s fantasy series ‘Game of Thrones,’ and the movie ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,’
And going somewhere where there’s a great chance of seeing the Northern Lights is on the bucket list of almost every traveler.
Foreign and local tour operators have greatly expanded schedules and itineraries throughout Iceland and the inventory of hotel rooms and vacation rentals have grown.
Helping to fuel in the influx of visitors from North America is the increase in air service to Iceland, especially by Wow Air and Icelandair, two Reykjavik-based airlines that route their flights through Iceland and offer passengers the option of an Iceland stopover for no additional airfare charge.
“Who doesn’t love a two-for-one deal?” said Pauline Frommer, Editorial Director of Frommer’s guidebooks and Frommers.com, “Most travelers are jazzed by the idea of getting to see an additional destination on their way to Europe – and one that hugely popular right now.”
Icelandair, celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, has been promoting its stopover option since perhaps the early 1950s or mid-60s, said airline spokesman Michael Raucheisen, “We’ve always encouraged passengers to come experience Iceland for a few days, fall in love with it and come back for a full trip. And that model has worked well over the years.”
For passengers who don’t choose to stopover, Icelandair has two planes offering flyers a taste – or a tease – of the Iceland experience.
The carrier’s northern lights-themed plane was introduced in 2015 and earlier this month the airline launched a glacier-themed plane (named for Iceland’s Vatnajokull glacier) that has images of the glacier hand-painted on the exterior and, inside, ice-blue lighting and headrests, cups, napkins, lavatory décor and even airsickness bags with a glacier motif.