There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding Iceland lately. The Global Peace Index announced it to be the safest and most peaceful country in the world. On #TeleportTuesday, Classic Journeys guests picked it as the place they’d most like to be teleported. And now the Icelandic government has announced plans to welcome international tourists beginning June 15.
While the Icelandic tourist board, Inspired by Iceland, will announce final details for travelers by the end of May, we sat down with Classic Journeys founder Edward Piegza, expert local guides Atli and Kommi in Reykjavik, and hotelier Mummi from his home along the south coast for a window into what the ‘new normal’ of travel will be like in Iceland and as other countries follow its lead.
Perhaps because he is 50% Swedish and the Vikings originated from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, Edward has always had a fascination with Iceland. Recently, that’s seen him spend a significant amount of time there over the last couple of years, as he has returned time and again to scout our Culture + Walking, Family and Multisport trips, to lead a press trip of media professionals, and to host a program with Land Rover driving iconic Defenders along the south coast.
With him at all times are Classic Journeys guides, Atli and Kommi, who are also descended from Vikings (9th-century to be exact) and have 30 generations of shark fishermen in their blood. Meanwhile, Mummi is the 7th generation to live on his family’s horse ranch along the south coast, and frequently hosts Edward and Classic Journeys guests in his beautiful farm-house hotel.
We know one of the questions on everyone’s mind is when will countries allow entry to US citizens? And we’ve heard rumblings of Iceland reopening. Can you help us sort through all the news and statistics and tell us what it means for our travels?
Edward: “Happy to! Iceland has announced that it plans to welcome international visitors beginning June 15. It’s the first country to announce this and I’m excited for them because it happens to be one of my favorite countries and they have a very thoughtful plan on how to go about it. One of the most promising statements came from Iceland’s Minister of Tourism lauding the country’s ‘strategy of large-scale testing, tracing and isolating [which] have proven effective so far.’ He continued by saying ‘…when travelers return to Iceland, we want to have all mechanisms in place to safeguard them…creating a safe place for those who want a change of scenery after what has been a tough spring for all of us.’”
So, why is Iceland able to reopen for tourism ahead of the rest of the world?
Edward: “First, and fortunately, the country is very well set up for social-distancing. The landscape is vast, and the population density is very low, akin to what we have in Montana. With that, no matter where you go, you are going to find yourself in fresh air. Additionally, they have been ahead of the rest of the world with this entire pandemic situation. Thanks to a fast acting and effective pandemic plan, while the rest of us have been focused on flattening the curve, Iceland has been able to virtually stamp out the virus.”
What is the status of coronavirus in Iceland?
Edward: “We’re fortunate here at Classic Journeys in that one of our most traveled guests is also the head of infectious disease for a local hospital system. So, we consult with her often as we monitor the local, domestic and global situation closely. She and we have been so impressed with Iceland’s coronavirus success. When I checked this morning, Iceland only had three diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in the whole of May, and the overall death toll has been limited to 10 people in total. Currently, there are six people in the whole country in isolation. Compare that to other developed countries and it is truly incredible how successfully they have navigated the pandemic.
Covid.is is my go-to for the most up-to-date Iceland statistics. And the endcoronavirus.org website is another I have bookmarked. It creates graphs which gives you a really simple, visual update of how each country is coping.”
Atli: “Of course, this is a constantly evolving situation, however at the moment the reports are very promising. We get official updates daily (which started a long time before even the first case was diagnosed). As a nation we continue to be very cautious and are sticking to government guidelines. Their protocol has worked well this far, so as a nation, we have good trust in it.”
It does seem like Iceland inherently had a head start in preventing additional virus introduction and spread. You mentioned Iceland being proactive in their approach. What else can you tell me about how they’ve been so successful in preventing the spread of coronavirus?
Kommi: “We have been testing high-risk, symptomatic and asymptomatic members of the population. Through it, experts have been able to identify positive cases as well as anyone who had come into contact with a positive case (identified by an innovative app we have been using). Anyone of us who fell into these categories has been placed under strict quarantine to contain the outbreak.”
You just mentioned an innovative app. What is it, how does it work, and do you use it?
Kommi: “Yes, I do! We have been using this for weeks now. In fact, about 40% of the population has downloaded it and the app has been applauded in helping to prevent the spread of infection. Rakning C-19 is a free and easy-to-use smartphone app, available for Android and iPhones. Once downloaded and activated, the app tracks our phone’s location. If someone with the app is diagnosed with coronavirus, their data can be used to map who may have also been infected according to where they have been in the last 14 days. It’s government backed and created for the safety and wellbeing of us all. For me, it was a no-brainer and I would be happy to share my data to protect others.”
So now that Iceland is starting to allow visitors, will they also have to download the app? Is the app secure and safe to use?
Edward: “You know, I wondered the same thing when I first heard visitors will be required to download and use the app. So, we inquired and learned that it’s an official app created by the Icelandic government and handled by the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management’s Contact Tracing Team. GPS data is stored securely, only on your phone, adhering to the strictest privacy standards. The Contract Tracing Team cannot access the data unless you expressly grant permission, and permission will only be requested in the diagnosis of an infection. Any information released is held securely by the Department for a period of 14 days, after which it will be completely erased. And you only need it while you are in the country. As soon as you leave Iceland, all data will be erased from your phone.
Similar contact tracing apps have proven effective in preventing the virus’ spread in other countries and recently three US states have also publicly committed to using this type of exposure notification technology to help keep their states safe.”
Downloading an app seems easy enough to do, but how do you prevent others from bringing the virus into the country? Is Iceland still implementing a 14-day quarantine after arrival?
Edward: “A lot of countries (and even some states here in the US) are stating that a 14-day quarantine is the only option for visitors. Once again, Iceland is ahead of everyone else, pioneering an airport testing system to save healthy travelers from having to self-isolate. You will only have to be quarantined if you opt out of testing or test positive for coronavirus.”
Wow, that’s a huge step forward. So, Iceland will be testing everybody who enters the country?
Edward: “Yes. The Icelandic government has said that they will offer tests to everyone who lands at Keflavik airport. That’s the country's only international airport, and 100% of visitors will arrive and pass through there. Anyone who has already been tested very recently and holds a valid medical certificate to confirm they are coronavirus-free will not have to take the test. Otherwise, the government will test visitors on arrival at the airport and provide same day results so that you know as you exit the airport that you – and everyone else doing the same thing – is COVID-free. And you’d assume that everyone will prefer this same day/on arrival testing approach, because if you do not go that route or have the medical certificate, you’d have to self-quarantine for 14-days.”
That’s very impressive that Iceland has that capability and is continuing to take such a proactive and involved approach. Can you tell us more about the tests and their effectiveness?
Atli: “The plan is for the medical professionals at the airport to use the swab tests conducted by Icelandic biotech company deCODE Genetics. This has been very effective towards the country’s control of the coronavirus outbreak.”
Edward: “Exactly, Atli. Epidemiologists around the world are complimenting Iceland for its protocols. The testing will be conducted in a clean environment and overseen by experts in the virology lab of the Department of Microbiology at Landspítali National University Hospital.”
Kommi: “More than 13% of our asymptomatic population has been tested. That’s the largest percent of the population of any country in the world. And we have learned so much from it. For example, early results suggested 0.6% of the population were “silent carriers” of the disease with no symptoms, or only a mild cough and runny nose. The test and the tracing have really positively impacted our safety and the safety of anyone we come into close contact with as we go about our daily lives.”
That all sounds great. But who is paying for these tests?
Edward: “This hasn’t been confirmed yet, but it looks like the tests will initially be free and after two weeks, the situation will be reassessed. As a traveler looking to find a way to begin exploring again… safely… it strikes me that if a payment is required, it’s a worthy investment to confirm one’s health and continue freely on a trip of a lifetime, without having to lose time self-isolating.”
So, after you’ve taken the test, how long will it take to receive the results?
Mummi: “These are expected to be same-day tests with results available within five hours. It’s estimated that it will be possible to run up to 1000 tests per day.”
Ok, say somebody takes the test and their results are negative. What then?
Edward: “You go about your trip as normal! Anyone medically confirmed to not have coronavirus will be free to travel throughout Iceland for the duration of their vacation.”
And what if somebody tests positive?
Atli: “Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will remain quarantined for at least 14 days until they are no longer infectious.”
That makes sense. So, after you are deemed negative for coronavirus, what does traveling around Iceland look like?
Edward: “Right now, this might be one of the only places on earth where you can experience travel in an almost pre-coronavirus atmosphere. Other countries will open with new rules on group gatherings, distancing and mask-wearing, but I imagine Iceland may be just like it was last time I visited. Imagine the peace of mind that you have been medically certified coronavirus-free (as has anyone else who has entered the country). Add to that how they are monitoring infection via the Rakning C-19 app, which keeps the chances of infection spreading very low.”
That is all reassuring, but even with all of the other safety measures, we’ve been conditioned to social distance. Is Iceland set up for social distanced traveling?
Edward: “Iceland is a relatively isolated island, and the feeling of being far away from everything and everyone is one of my favorite things about it. This isn’t somewhere that you often see crowds of people. And the landscape is so vast and open that I can’t ever imagine feeling cramped. Staying six feet apart would be so easy there!”
Kommi: “Because we have only about 360,000 people in Iceland and we are about the same size as the state of New York with 19 million people, social distancing means something very different to us. Our population density is just three people per square mile. When our government told us to keep six feet apart, that seemed like we would be too close to one another!”
That all makes sense when we are outdoors, but how are Iceland’s hotels ensuring a safe stay?
Mummi: “Even before coronavirus, Iceland hoteliers took pride in maintaining the highest standards of cleanliness and hygiene. Then, in response to the coronavirus, we have taken additional measures developed in consultation with global and local public health authorities (including the WHO, CDC and the Icelandic Directorate of Health) to make our cleaning and hygiene protocols even more rigorous.”
Edward: “Classic Journeys is coordinating with every one of our hotel partners around the world to position all of our guests to experience the highest standards of hygiene and sanitization. In addition, as we look at additional protocols like social distancing, there are some thing that we were already doing on our tours to make the overall guest experience just more enjoyable that are going to pay dividends for our guests as we resume traveling. For example, a couple of years ago we instituted Invisible Check-in at all of our hotels around the world. It means that we check you in from La Jolla, before you ever arrive at the hotel. So, there is no standing in line. Who knew that removing that little bit of frustration for our guests then would pay off so nicely from a social distancing standpoint now?”
While we’ve gotten more used to social distancing, a lot of us can’t say the same for wearing masks. Is it mandatory to wear a mask while traveling in Iceland?
Edward: “Not unless you would prefer to. Currently the advice is that people only need to wear masks if they are showing symptoms such as coughing or sneezing or caring for someone with a suspected coronavirus infection. This does not include travel though. Several airports and airlines are requiring passengers to wear masks. If you are more comfortable wearing a mask during your trip, you are totally welcome to do that.”
Kommi: “I know other countries have enforced the wearing of masks when people are anywhere outside of the house. This hasn’t been the case in Iceland as we have managed to track the virus so well. Also, as I mentioned, we don’t tend to get too close to each other anyway! If you have gotten into the habit of wearing a mask at home, I would say bring it along, then you can wear it if you feel more comfortable. However, most of our activities are outdoors and by nature, making social distancing very easy. So, you may decide that a mask is not essential.”
Iceland is looking very appealing, but what about getting to Iceland? What have you heard about flying?
Edward: “The CDC and other health authorities have deemed the infection risk for passengers on airplanes to be low. Most of our guests fly to Iceland with Icelandair and the carrier has announced that it will be cordoning off middle seats wherever possible to allow for social distancing. If you are traveling with others and want to sit together, this can be requested upon check-in.“
Ok, so Iceland looks like it has a good plan in place! What countries could be next?
Edward: “I would make an educated guess that the Greek Isles will be close behind Iceland. The government are suggesting that international flights could start as soon as July 1 and they have temporarily reduced the VAT on transport (flights, buses and rail included) to encourage tourists. The website I mentioned with the graphs backs this up:”
“And Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba and Montenegro also look like they have a good hold of the situation, so here’s hoping they come next.”
What does this mean for Classic Journeys guests who are reserved on tours to Iceland or who want to travel this year?
Edward: “It means that if you are reserved on one of our Culture + Walking, Family or Multisport departures after June 15, 2020, you are good to go. And if you have been looking at your summer, fall or winter plans and wondering when and where you can start to think about traveling again, Iceland is open for business. And—as it has done so often over the last several years—it is leading the way in safe and responsible travel. (The first Culture + Walking dates after June 15 include July 19, August 16 and September 13. Family departures include July 5 and August 2. Multisport departures after June 15, 2020 include August 9, September 13, October 25 and December 26.)”
Thank you, Edward, Atli, Kommi and Mummi. You’ve answered all of our questions, but our guests may still have more. Can they email you with any questions they have?
Edward: “Sure! Just send a question to email@example.com and I’d be happy to share what I’ve gathered."