“It Will Take Tourism Three or Four Years to Recover”

News of a vaccine has inspired hopes that tourism will have a better summer than first projected, RÚV reports. “We’re still a long way away from bookings streaming in”, says Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, CEO of The Icelandic Travel Industry Association, but according to him, people have started searching the internet for travel options once more. “The traveller has started dreaming of travel, but it can take a while.” While the industry has reported fewer bankruptcies than predicted, and there is news of companies starting to rehire people they laid off, recovery for the industry is still a long way off.

Morgunblaðið reported this morning that 66 staff members with the Hertz car rental agency laid off this spring would be rehired. Jóhannes does not have more examples of large rehirings in the tourism sector and says it’s more common that companies are rehiring important staff one by one. “It’s mostly the government’s support actions that are enabling companies to rehire the staff that they want to hold on to. People with knowledge and experience that is the key to rebuilding the companies.”

Jóhannes says there are plenty of unknown factors concerning next summer, one of which is if Schengen will reopen its borders before the summer. “I’ve been looking at the projections, our own, the ones in Icelandair’s renaissance plan, and the ones made by the Central Bank of Iceland, which supposes that 750,000-950,000 tourists might come to Iceland in 2021.” He adds that their own projections assume just under a million tourists will visit Iceland in 2021 and that positive vaccine news has increased the chances of fulfilling that projection. “It all depends on if tourism can get started at the beginning of summer or later in the summer,” he adds.

While domestic herd immunity as well as in the countries around us should ease travel restrictions, Jóhannes mentions that it’s not just a question of being allowed to travel again, it’s also a question of affording to. The economic effects of the pandemic will hit many people hard, and the unemployed are less likely to travel, he says.

When asked if it will help that a weaker króna makes the exchange rate favourable for tourists, Jóhannes replies that it might help, but other factors are more important. For instance, the US is one of Iceland’s largest markets, and the summer’s success depends on when Schengen borders will reopen to American tourists.

While next winter might be a good one, this December is a slow one compared to last year’s. “I think the Christmas and New Years’ Market is completely out for now. It’s mostly people on short trips, 3-5 days, something that’s now impossible,” he says.

While there have been fewer bankruptcies than they feared, companies in tourism are heavily in debt, and it will take the industry three or four years to regain its standing. Jóhannes Þór credits the government’s action with reducing bankruptcies but is concerned about the debt that companies find themselves in. “It will take the tourism industry much longer than just next year to recover. It will likely take three to four years to regain the balance we had,” says Jóhannes Þór.

Iceland’s Museum of Natural History Finds Permanent Home

Icelandic Museum of Natural History

Iceland’s Museum of Natural History is set to get permanent housing after 130 years of waiting. The museum has signed a contract which will enable them to move the museum to Seltjarnarnes to a building that has been more than 20 years in the making. The plan is to open the museum in the spring of 2023.

130-year wait for a museum Building

While Iceland’s Museum of Natural History in its current form was founded in 2007, its history can be traced back to 1889 when the Icelandic society of Natural sciences was founded. One of the Society’s founding goals was to open a museum of natural history in Iceland. They started a collection and ran a museum for almost 60 years. In 1947, they donated the collection to the government along with funds intended to go towards building a permanent home for a museum of natural history. This became the foundation for the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, an agency of the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources, but the building never saw the light of day. The collection was on display in rented buildings that weren’t up to modern standards for museums. In 2007, a new institution was founded to take care of the collection dating back to 1889, a museum, separate from the government agency. Even then, it consisted of offices and storage space, with no exhibition space. Its collection has never had a permanent residence although a part of its collection is on display in the exhibition The Water in Icelandic Nature in Perlan.Icelandic Museum of Natural History

Yrki Arkitektar

A building 20 years in the making

Now, the museum has signed a contract with authorities allowing them to use a building in Seltjarnarnes, close to Grótta. Originally built to house a medical museum, the building’s been empty since its exterior was finished in 2007. The building’s story goes back a long time as well. Architects Ásdís Helga Ágústsdóttir and Sólveig Berg’ design won an open design contest for a medical museum in Setljarnares in 1997. Winning the contest allowed them to start their own architect firm, now more than 20 years old, but in all that time, the building remained unfinished. Cost of construction turned out to be higher than anticipated, and the municipality and government disagreed over which party should shoulder the added costs. For years, the building stood empty and unused, although the municipality at one point advertised it for sale on the open market. “I couldn’t even walk past it anymore,” says Ásdís, one of the building’s architects. “It was so hard to see it unfinished for all these years.”

While the medical museum has yet to open, the building will now be completed and altered slightly to fit the needs of the Natural History Museum. The State Treasury made a deal with the municipality of Seltjarnarnes to take over the building, a part of an investment program to combat the economic effects of the global pandemic. Ásdís is optimistic that the building will suit the needs of the new museum. “Even if the building was intended to house a medical museum, we designed it to complement the nature that surrounds it. It’s a low building that fits perfectly in the low, flat landscape and the sea line beyond it, enveloped by the soft hill that surrounds it. It’s an organic creation, with soft curves intended to indicate the curves of the human body, but that will suit the museum of natural history just as well.”

Even though the building is low, there’s more to it than the eye registers at first. “Underneath the surface is a spacious level with plenty of height, perfect for exhibitions,” Ásdís says. The low roof also offers beautiful views of the nature that surrounds it, with specially designed windbreakers that will provide a break from the Seltjarnarnes winds. “We spent a lot of time figuring out the wind direction patterns so that people will be able to enjoy the view in perfect stillness,” says Ásdís, who’s been waiting more than twenty years to see her firm’s first creation completed.Icelandic Museum of Natural History

Yrki Arkitektar

A suitable home

Now, this one of Iceland’s principal museum will finally get a satisfactory home. “We’ve waited for a long time, 130 years,” stated Hilmar L. Malmquist, Director of the Icelandic Museum of Natural History. “We’ve never had our own building, not for exhibitions, or any of our other work so this is long-awaited. The location is excellent, this close to the nature, the ocean, Bakkatjörn lake and signs of human habitation. It will be fascinating to work with.”

The building has high ceilings and plenty of space, but Hilmar already has eyes on expanding. “It will do to start with; it’s 1,360 sqm (14,639 sq ft). But the nation is growing, and we’ll have plenty of tourists once the pandemic has passed, so it’s foreseeable that we will have to expand relatively soon. The blueprints already exist,” said Hilmar.

In addition to the building, the museum will receive a budget of 1.2-1.3 billion ISK to complete it and adapt it to their needs. “It’s been empty for years and needs upkeep. But that budget also includes foundational expenses for our permanent exhibition.” Hilmar has set an ambitious timeline for the museum’s opening: “We’ll have it ready in a relatively short time. We plan to get to work quickly and hopefully we’ll be able to move our operations here and open in spring of 2023,” Hilmar stated.

COVID in Iceland: New Colour Codes To Increase Restriction Predictability

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason

At a scheduled information briefing today, the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management introduced a new colour-coded warning system, similar to the Icelandic Met Office’s weather warning system. THe colours range from grey representing a “new normal” to red, indicating a serious state of affairs. Currently, the whole country is in the red, even though the pandemic’s current wave is waning, as there are many different factors that dictate Chief Epidemiologist’s Þórólfur Guðnason’s decision on when to change the warnings. Those factors include number of new infections, hospital status, state of the pandemic in other countries and if numbers of infections are going up or down.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of Iceland Review’s Live-tweeting of the briefing 

On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson. Special guest: Ingibjörg Lilja Ómarsdóttir, a specialist at the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, who will present the new colour-coded COVID warning system. (irew.cc/han)

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 7 new domestic cases yesterday – all in quarantine at the time – and 5 at the border. Total active cases: 197. 36 are in hospital and 3 in intensive care.

The briefing has begun. Þórólfur goes over the numbers. The weekend has been good, he says, with all new domestic cases being already in quarantine. However fewer tests were conducted as is typical over the weekend. The coming days will show how the wave is developing. The situation is still precarious, so I encourage everyone with any symptoms to get tested, Þórólfur says. One good development is that the proportion of tests that are positive (of all tested) has gone down.

The majority of new cases in the recent weeks are due to the so-called “blue strain,” the one that kickstarted the current wave. For a while, health authorities thought the blue strain was dying out but that judgement was premature.

Of those in hospital due to COVID-19, only one individual is actively infectious. That person is in ICU. There are 3 people in total in ICU and two of them are on ventilators.

The restrictions now in effect last until Wednesday so from Thursday on, there will be new regulations. Þórólfur hasn’t sent his recommendations to the Minister of Health and is not prepared to discuss the details of what he is planning at this point. Þórólfur states that it’s clear that we can’t lift restrictions quickly. We’ll have to expect a low-key Advent season and a low-key Christmas in Iceland.

We’re still preparing for the arrival of vaccines and how we will distribute them, Þórólfur says. We have no further news of when they will arrive or how many doses we will receive but that will probably become clearer toward the end of the month. Þórólfur notes that vaccination will not be mandatory in Iceland and vaccines will be free of charge.

Ingibjörg Lilja takes over to discuss the colour-coded COVID warning system. “For way too long, we’ve been dealing with this virus, but during that time, we’ve gathered experience and knowledge that we can now use to increase predictability,” Lilja says. The system is not set in stone. For it to serve its purpose, we need it to be able to adapt to our needs.

Just like the weather warning system, grey is the lowest warning level and represents the “new normal,” then warning levels rise through yellow, orange, and to the highest level: red. The country is separated into regions according to police regions. It could happen that different warning levels/colours are applied to different regions. For example, if the whole country is orange but suddenly, the Chief Epidemiologist’s data shows that things are getting worse in the capital area, then that region will turn red and we’ll issue a warning. During a red weather alert, we are careful and for the most part, we stay at home. We’ll do the same during red COVID alerts. On covid.is, you can find the regulations and guidelines that apply for each colour/warning level. Schools have been categorised as well as different types of athletic activities and that information can be found at covid.is.

Right now, the whole country is red but we hope that we’ll be able to change the colours soon. The warning system does not protect us in and of itself, reminds Lilja. Hopefully, the colour-coded system will help to increase predictability but no matter the colour, we have to be careful and pay close attention to personal hygiene.

The panel opens for questions. The first question concerns an Icelandic doctor who arrived in the country recently and refused both testing and quarantine, and been vocal in their opposition to the government’s restrictions. Þórólfur says they haven’t looked into the case specifically but he is saddened to hear his colleagues, who have undergone medical training, have that opinion. Cases are not handled differently depending on whether people are vocal in their opposition or not. Rögnvaldur adds that local police handles cases such as that one and that the individual in question does not have an active license to practice medicine. Rögnvaldur is asked about if it’s possible to reject tests on arrival to the country. He says all travellers can opt for 14-day quarantine instead of testing.

The panel is asked about the possibility that people who have recovered from COVID could be exempted from gathering limits. Þórólfur says that’s an idea but he believes it would be difficult to execute.

Þórólfur is asked about whether there is a possibility that the virus could mutate into a strain that is resistant to vaccines if it is transmitted from humans to animals and back to humans again (as happened with mink in Denmark). Þórólfur says that was something Danish authorities feared and what led them to cull mink, but such a mutation was not discovered. No cases of COVID have been found in Icelandic mink despite testing.

Asked if people who suspect they’ve already contracted COVID should get tested for antibodies before getting vaccinated, Þórólfur answers that they could and perhaps should, but there’s no danger in getting vaccinated though an individual already has antibodies, except for the possible side effects.

Why is the whole country coded red according to the warning system right now and what will it take to downgrade the colour? The colour coding is dependent on several factors: new domestic infections, hospital status and so on. Þóróflur says there’s no magic number that determines when the warning level changes, but that it’s a tool for authorities to let people know what to expect.

Þórólfur is asked about his fear that the public is relaxing because of fewer cases are being diagnosed. Þórólfur says he didn’t notice people around him relaxing and hopes that others are not doing so. But in any case, he won’t base his recommendations on anecdotal evidence.

Þórólfur has no more information from the European Medicines Agency and will not report any further news of vaccines because he has none. He doesn’t expect any news until closer to the projected date of December 29. “Until then we’ll all suffer the lack of information together,” says Þórólfur.

Þórólfur says he will not suggest regional restrictions from December 9, even though most of the recent infections have been in the capital area, as the wave is currently waning.

Is skiing likely to increase infections? Þórólfur says it’s difficult to say, but authorities considered that question when outbreaks occurred in Austria last winter. However, it was likely the gatherings off the slopes had the most impact.
Do you still think border testing should be made mandatory, Þóróflur? That depends on if making the testing free of charge has changed anything, and right now it seems like it has. Very few people are choosing 14-day quarantine over testing at the border.

Rögnvaldur ends the meeting by addressing holiday celebrations. “Put the traditions on hold, we’ve had to change a lot of things this year and Christmas is no exception. Advent, Christmas, New Year’s Eve: we have to accept that they will be different this year,” says Rögnvaldur. “Wash your hands and keep your distance, it will work out if we tackle this together.” The briefing has ended.

John Snorri Arrived At K2 Base Camps, Tents “Exploded”

Mountaineer John Snorri Sigurjónsson has reached the K2 base camp and is continuing his attempt to be the first to complete a K2 winter expedition, despite stormy weather and below -20°c (-4°F) weather.

John Snorri arrived at the K2 base camp on December 5 after a 6-day trek over Baltoro glacier. At 63km (39miles), Baltoro glacier is the world’s longest glacier. On arrival, the weather was windy and temperatures below -20°C. The camp is at an altitude of 4,900m (16.076ft)above sea level and while Snorri expected his team to be acclimatised after two days, stormy weather last night made things difficult for the team. John Snorri posted on Facebook: “The weather was crazy last night and some of our tents and kitchen tent exploded.” Never discouraged, John Snorri and his team, spent the day repairing the tents in a better location to be prepared for the next storm. They will be spending the next months in the camp before attempting to climb the K2 peak.

K2 is the only one out of the world’s 14 mountains above 8,000 m that people haven’t climbed in winter. John Snorri became the first Icelander to top K2 in 2017 but this is his second attempt at a winter expedition after he had to turn back last year.