The Covid lock-downs are easing in most of the countries. The urge for travel is wired in man’s DNA. So, he is looking for a chance to go out especially after some months’ stay at home. However, the tourist spots are not so welcoming as they were before.
Going to the beach will require spacing out parasols and forgetting about the drinks service, while a city break in Europe might mean keeping a mask on while shopping. Not to mention the quarantines being imposed to limit imported infections, hardly a great way to start a vacation. Public health has become a huge factor in tourism: “COVID-free” is the new five-star rating.
If there’s one destination in particular that might turn into an ideal getaway from COVID-19, it’s Iceland. The tiny island nation with population around 360,000, has long been known for its stunning landscapes, views of the Northern Lights, lava caves and other vistas featured in shows like Game of Thrones. Recently it has gained plaudits as a coronavirus case study, having kept its outbreak under control without imposing a messy or draconian lockdown. And it may very well show the way for countries trying to strike a balance between wooing visitors and avoiding a flare-up in cases.
From the start of the outbreak, Iceland stood out from much of Europe by having a proactive pandemic plan ready and sticking to it. The country began testing widely for COVID-19 in February, even before its first declared case. It even tested people who showed no symptoms. Iceland has tested more people per capita than anywhere else. By quarantining and tracing the contacts of positive cases, the country avoided the extremes of either an indiscriminate lockdown or simply letting the virus rip. The result is a nation with just 1,802 cases and 10 deaths; its estimated mortality rate of 0.6 per cent is lower than France, Italy or Sweden.
The Iceland’s approach towards foreign tourists is, on arrival, either 14 days quarantine or a Covid test – the cost of which should be borne by the traveler. This will force the visitors to download Iceland’s Rakning C-19 contact-tracing app for mobile phones. That seems fair enough, considering the country’s strong data protection policies. In return for these pretty light strictures, visitors will get the run of a place without crowds or restrictive policies on movement and wearing face masks. It’s a good trade.
Obviously, building something is no guarantee people will come. Where Iceland may also become a role model is, in actively funneling financial support to the tourism industry, which became its key export after the crippling 2008 banking crisis. The government’s fiscal package, worth 8 per cent of gross domestic product, includes subsidies to promote domestic tourism, a suspension of hotel taxes and a marketing campaign. At 10 per cent of GDP, the tourism sector is a big part of the Icelandic economy. None of this looks like it’ll be enough to avoid a deep recession in Iceland this year, as global consumers cut back and travel less. It may not even be enough to avoid a new spike in infections if the worst-case scenario comes to pass.
But as other countries struggle to emerge from lock-down, while at the same time trying to promote tourism, Iceland is worth paying attention to. If a small island can test, trace and isolate corona virus cases, and kick-start tourism in the space of a few months, it can be done elsewhere too.