The Icelandic tourism industry has erupted in recent years, as the small country wedged between Europe and North America learns to capitalise on its dramatic geography and natural wonders. The disastrous meltdown of the banking sector in 2008 was an added catalyst, prompting the country to ramp up its marketing efforts to attract outside visitors as a sustainable source of income.
A Travel PR Success Story
One effect of the volcano that disrupted Europe’s flight paths in 2010 was to put the remote island firmly into the minds of travellers around the globe. Proof, perhaps, that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, or at least that every ash cloud has a silver lining.
But the country’s growing prominence on the tourist agenda is no act of God. Instead it’s the result of a sustained and deliberate travel PR push, with a focus on online marketing and an impressive profile on the now-essential social networks: from TripAdvisor to Instagram.
The Inspired By Iceland YouTube video below was created and released to exploit the global attention attracted by the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption.
I recently visited the aptly-named Land of Ice and Fire, joining almost 1 million international visitors estimated to be making the journey in 2014. Here’s a look at what’s attracting them, and how the marketing of Iceland compares with the experience on the ground.
ICELAND TOURISM: KEY FACTS
Capital city Reykjavik
Language Icelandic (English widely spoken)
Currency Icelandic krona (ISK)
Total population 320,000
Annual visitor numbers 900,000 in 2014 (up from 672,000 in 2012)
Size of tourist industry 23.5% of export revenue
Major attractions The Golden Circle (Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall, Thingvellir National Park), geothermal springs and spas including Blue Lagoon, Northern Lights, Whale-watching, Horse-trekking, Reykjavik, Volcanoes
Locals Friendly and welcoming
Pre-trip research: Social media as a travel planning tool
Iceland first came onto my radar as a potential holiday destination in 2011, via Facebook. Early-adopting friends were posting photos of the striking Blue Lagoon, and selfies tagged with the geolocation Reykjavik began to appear in my timeline.
Up to 52% of travellers now use social media to research, select and plan their trip
Studies have found that up to 52% of travellers now use social media to research, select and plan their trip. In my case, I turned to Twitter and Instagram, where searches for ‘Iceland’ returned many accounts, including Inspired by Iceland and Visit Iceland, both operated by the Icelandic tourist authorities.
By frequently sharing striking images and videos, social media channels like these keep the destination front-of-mind with their followers. After about 18 months of being exposed on a daily basis to gushing geysers and glowing Northern lights, I was ready to progress to the next stage: booking.
Booking the trip: Package deals lead the way
Boosted by the recession, the rise of discount culture has affected the travel industry no less than any other. Travel sites promising to deliver ‘exclusive’ offers inboxes abound, warming up the consumer until they’re ready to buy.
And buy I did, via Secret Escapes, after spending a few weeks exploring various other deal sites. The two factors in the decision were price and places (which attractions and tours were included in the package deal). I had no loyalty to operator, airline or travel agent; my drivers were to visit the destination and see its attractions at the best price.
It’s also worth noting that all the research was done online, with Google as the starting point 9 times out of 10. This underlines the importance of good search engine optimisation (SEO) for tour operators and travel agencies hoping to be found by potential customers.
Consumer travel review site TripAdvisor receives 260 million visitors a month
When it came to choosing a deal to go for, I turned to TripAdvisor (which now receives 260 million visitors every month) to check how other travellers had reviewed Alda Hotel, and used Google Maps to check location and distances. With all this information at a traveller’s fingertips, it is essential for any travel-related organisation to have a strong and positive online presence.
On the ground: Infrastructure and amenities
The official Icelandic tourism strategy lists infrastructure as the first objective, and unsurprisingly all the tourist sites I visited were well-maintained and geared up for foreign visitors. Road links between Reykjavik and key rural spots including the breathtaking Gullfoss waterfall are excellent. However, it seems they are mainly traversed by private bus companies such as Reykjavik Excursions. These tour operators ferry tourists to and fro, covering everything from the hunt for Northern Lights to the relaxing, sulphurous waters of the Blue Lagoon.
Public transport appears far less developed than in other Western European countries, and there is no railway or metro on the island. This could change soon, as tourism has prompted proposals for a new line connecting the international airport with the capital city.
The city of Reykjavik – population 200,000 – is small and manageable for on-foot exploration. Visitors may be taken aback by the small size and scale, but its narrow streets of brightly-coloured, two-storey buildings house a surprising variety of restaurants, shops and hotels. One setback is the pricing, which is particularly high for clothing and alcohol. Top tip: leave souvenir-shopping until the airport duty-free –prices are up to 50% cheaper than in the city.
The local reception is more difficult to plan than infrastructure and amenities, but possibly even more important to the visitor experience. Happily there appeared to have been a countrywide briefing on how to treat foreign visitors. From the bartender casually regaling customers with tales of Viking heroes, to the driver who proudly explained Iceland’s renewable energy credentials, there was evidently a strong awareness of what the country had to offer and an eagerness to sell it.
What next for Icelandic tourism and travel PR?
As the country continues to market itself abroad, it will undoubtedly be served well by its online emphasis, as the broader travel industry shifts here. Worldwide, internet travel bookings have grown by more than 73% in the past 5 years, and now almost 60% of all travel reservations are made online.
Mobile is also key, as travellers not only browse and buy, but increasingly use use smartphones after they arrive to research local places, deals and things to do. With its widespread free wifi, Reykjavik is well-placed to take advantage of this trend.
A boom or a bubble?
To go from 672,000 visitors in 2012 to a forecasted 1 million in 2015 is no mean feat. It’s clear that the promotional strategy has delivered a colossal boost to Iceland’s tourist economy.
But Harpa Halldórsdóttir, a student of tourism I met in Reykjavik, had a word of caution:
“Tourism in Iceland has only now become something we can rely on. But it’s like a bubble. We have to be careful not to burst it.”
Given its declared commitment to ‘protecting nature, and incorporating the concepts of sustainability and responsibility,’ Iceland’s key challenge will be ensuring its booming visitor economy doesn’t overwhelm its infrastructure, and harm the stunning environment that travellers come to see.