Iceland’s tourism industry faced a difficult year, most notably due to the bankruptcy of WOW air, which led to a steep drop in the number of foreign visitors. Nevertheless, big strides were made toward improving infrastructure for the country’s visitors, and preserving some of the natural areas that draw tourists in the first place. Here’s a summary of Iceland’s biggest travel news stories of 2019.
After months of operational difficulties, Iceland’s only budget airline WOW air unceremoniously ceased all service on March 28, 2019, leaving thousands of passengers stranded. The company’s bankruptcy prompted the biggest mass layoffs in Icelandic history, with some 2,000 people losing jobs either directly or indirectly due to WOW’s downfall. The national unemployment rate has since risen, particularly in Suðurnes, where Keflavík Airport is the largest employer.
Two would-be companies, one led by former WOW executives and the other by USAerospace Associates, have been rushing to fill the gap left by WOW. So far, the task seems easier said than done: both have delayed their official launch.
Icelandair didn’t have a much easier year either, having to ground their three Boeing 737 Max 8 planes in March following two crashes involving the same models in other airlines. The planes remain grounded currently, and will be so well into next year.
Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson and Minister of Tourism Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir announced extensive plans to build up tourism infrastructure at 130 popular nature sites across the country. The government will allocate ISK 3.5 billion ($28.8m/€25.5m) over the next three years to the initiative, which will be used to protect both Icelandic nature and cultural heritage.
It’s not only local authorities that are recognising the value in Iceland’s sights. In July, Vatnajökull National Park was approved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, becoming the third in the country. In October, however, Þingvellir National Park’s UNESCO status was revealed to be at risk, due to the extensive diving and snorkelling operations in the park’s Silfra rift.
While some come to Iceland to look at nature, others want to reel it in. British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe bought additional property in Northeast Iceland, with the stated intention of protecting its salmon stocks. Ratcliffe has announced he will undertake conservation measures in the area that include installing salmon ladders, releasing fertilised roe into the rivers, and even improving the ecosystems along the banks of rivers. While some have expressed concern over how easily foreigners can purchase land in Iceland, salmon fishermen are undoubtedly supportive of the initiative. For a recap on news of Iceland’s flora and fauna this year, readers can consult Iceland Review’s Year in Review 2019: Nature.
Despite the difficulties, there are reasons for optimism in Icelandic travel. Juneyao Airlines of China has announced they will launch direct flights to Iceland in March, expecting to carry 20,000 tourists to the country in 2020. Local airline Icelandair Connect has also announced they will be expanding their operations in Greenland, which is expected to grow as a tourist destination in its own right. Entrepreneurs are optimistic as ever: seven hotels are currently under construction in Reykjavík, and expect to offer a combined 800 new hotel rooms to visitors next year.