Iceland Needs to Import Cooks, Servers, and Tour Guides, Says Industry Expert

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Iceland needs to import chefs, wait staff, tour guides and other specialized workers to support the tourism industry during the current boom, says Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, Managing Director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF). Mbl.is reports.

“We need cooks, we need waiters, we need all kinds of specially trained staff, specialized tour guides, etc,” remarked Jóhannes Þór in an interview on the news program Dagmál on Friday. “If we just look at cooks and waiters, there are a couple different dimensions to the problem.”

At the base level, he continued, there just aren’t enough people in Iceland going into training programs for these professions, which means that there is currently a shortage of qualified professionals on the local job market. Jóhannes Þór said the government should be putting more effort into drawing students into these programs and advertising the future opportunities that would be available to people who completed these courses of study.

“But that won’t be enough,” he said, particularly in the present moment. In order to meet its present needs, Iceland needs “to import a group of cooks and trained waiters” right now. But while Jóhannes Þór wasn’t willing to name a specific number of trained service professionals he thought Iceland should be seeking to bring in from abroad, he would concede that “clearly several dozen” are needed at least.

Fourteen People Rescued from Glacier in Massive, 24-Hour ICE-SAR Operation

Fourteen hikers are cold and shaken but thankfully safe after being rescued from Mt. Hvannadalshnjúkur in Vatnajökull National Park on Friday. The operation, which took almost 24 hours from the time of call-out, is one of the most extensive rescue missions to have been undertaken in recent history. All total, the rescue was conducted by 140 ICE-SAR volunteers, hailing from across South Iceland and even further afield. RÚV and Vísir reported.

A group of twelve Polish women and two Icelandic tour guides began their hike up Hvannadalshnjúkur around 3:00 AM on Thursday morning. Hvannadalshnjúkur is the highest peak of the Öræfajökull volcanic glacier. The group planned to reach the 2,109-m [6,921-ft] summit around noon on Thursday and then make their way back down. During their descent, however, their GPS broke, and unable to continue, they called Search and Rescue for help around 4:00 PM on Thursday.

Björgunarfélag Hornafjarðar, FB

Group took shelter in two tents at 1,800 metres

“The first information we got from them, it looked like it would be pretty easy, even though nothing’s easy up there,” explained Jens Olsen, vice-chair of the Hornafjörður ICE-SAR team. A team of rescuers on snowmobiles reached the group around 11:00 PM that night. “That’s when it started looking like it was going to be pretty complicated.”

“The temperature was just around freezing, it was raining, sleeting, snowing. So the conditions weren’t good and the visibility was basically nill,” continued Jens. “We decided to stay put and give them something to munch on and drink and then wait for more snowmobiles. They were just up on the glacier in the caldera at an altitude of 1,800-metres [5,905-ft] in two tents.”

Björgunarfélag Hornafjarðar, FB

Rescue took nearly 24 hours

Transporting 14 people down a glacier is no simple task, of course, and getting the whole party down the mountain was time-consuming and arduous. The first hikers started being transported down the mountain to Höfn í Hornafjörður around 5:00 AM on Friday; the last hikers made it to town at 3:00 PM that afternoon—nearly 24 hours after they made their emergency call. A crisis shelter had been set up and was waiting to receive them.

Jens’ colleague, Sigfinnur Mar Þrúðmarsson described the harrowing process of getting down the glacier. Due to low visibility and worsening conditions, it took rescuers almost eight hours to reach the hikers in the first place, and then it took six hours for them to make it back down. “Nearly all the way there we had maybe ten, fifteen metres [32-49 ft] of visibility. So if the closest car got too far ahead, you actually lost it. It was really wet snow and then on the way back, it had snowed a ton and people really had their hands full finding their way home.”

Considering what they’d been through, the hikers were all doing relatively well by the time they’d made it safely down the mountain, but Jens said the situation was verging on “critical” when the group was first found by ICE-SAR on Thursday afternoon. “I don’t think they could have stayed there much longer and everyone’s glad that it went so well. It could have been much worse.”

Unemployment Relief Needed for Tour Guides, Self-Employed

The COVID-19 pandemic has created economic hardships for workers throughout Iceland, but current relief measures are not going far enough for individuals outside of the traditional wage system, particularly those who are self-employed or contract workers, RÚV reports. Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson says that new measures are being considered to support these workers.

“We aren’t asking such parties to enrol in the unemployment register,” Bjarni remarked, explaining that it is often more complicated for freelancers and contract workers to seek out financial assistance. Bjarni said that self- and contract employment in Iceland is quite important and varied, however, “and we want to support [these people] during this time.”

See Also: Icelandic Government Presents Economic Response Package to COVID-19 Crisis

Tourist guides are among those who have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 crisis; according to Pétur Gauti Valgeirsson, chair of the Icelandic Tourist Guide Association, nearly all of the tour guides in Iceland are currently unemployed but most fall between the cracks of the government’s current unemployment relief measures. Nearly 1,000 people pay union dues to the Guide Association and an even larger number of people work full-time in this profession.

“It’s a grave situation for many people,” said Pétur Gauti, explaining that tour guides generally have temporary contracts with tour companies, rather than ongoing employment. But they pay taxes like wage workers, he says, and so have had the expectation that they would benefit from unemployment measures just like everyone else during this time. Because guide contracts are short term, however, tour companies are not obligated to provide them with termination notices, nor are they entitled to reduced employment or unemployment benefits.

Guides don’t fit into the system

Guides often do short-term stints for multiple tour companies at a time, says Pétur Gauti, and unemployment is based on wages and hours worked during the previous six months. This leaves guides in a very bad position right now, he says, because there is generally little work in this sector during the Christmas season. January was previously a big month for tour guides because Iceland received many Chinese tourists during that month. That was not the case this January, however, and February and March were likewise very quiet. All told, this means that many guides are only entitled to ISK 10-20,000 ($70-140/€64-128) per month in unemployment benefits. Pétur Gauti asserted that it would be better to base unemployment benefits on guides’ hours and wages from the previous year.

Pétur Gauti says that tour guides’ precarious financial position has been brought to the attention of the Icelandic Confederation of Labour, the Directorate of Labour, and the government, but does not know how or if the situation will be rectified. There’s only so much that can be done within the current legal framework.

“The system is difficult and unwieldy, and we don’t fit in it,” Pétur Gauti concluded. “If this is supposed to be a safety net, it hasn’t been woven tight enough to catch tour guides.”