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Easily accessible from both the U.S. and Europe, Iceland’s popularity as a tourism destination is largely due to its natural beauty, distinctive geography, and seemingly limitless outdoor tours and activities. But this island nation of 375,000 people has much more to offer beyond the “land of fire and ice” — the enterprising spirit of its population has contributed to a dynamic, original culture scene worth exploring.
With experiential travel increasingly driving trip-planning decisions, Iceland is positioning itself as a destination for once-in-a-lifetime cultural experiences set against a breathtaking natural backdrop.
Close to 30 airlines fly directly to Iceland from more than 80 destinations, offering excellent connectivity throughout the year — and new routes connecting the North of Iceland to Europe have made it even more accessible. EasyJet recently launched the direct flight from the UK to North Iceland, connecting London’s Gatwick airport with Akureyri, a small town of 20,000 people at the bottom of the deepest fjord in Iceland.
SkiftX spoke with Lína Petra Þórarinsdóttir, head of Visit Iceland, about the island’s allure as a cultural destination for business and leisure travel alike, the breadth of its off-the-beaten-path appeal, and local sustainability efforts designed to protect its natural environment.
SkiftX: What makes Iceland stand out as a creative hub and cultural center?
Lina Petra Þórarinsdóttir: Iceland takes pride in its artistic and creative industries. In Reykjavík, you can experience a modern European capital with easy access to world-class cultural activities — but you’re also just two hours away from a breathtaking glacier hike, or 20-minutes away from a beloved mountain trail or whale-watching excursion.
Our small nation has made a large contribution to the global art scene, with renowned visual artists like Olafur Eliasson and Shoplifter / Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, musicians such as Björk and Hildur Guðnadóttir, and the bands Sigur Rós and GusGus, just to name a few.
Creative Iceland is our way of showcasing Iceland as a creative hub. The initiative is a joint project between Business Iceland and the Icelandic government, focused on exporting various Icelandic art forms — music, art, literature, film, performing arts, and design — to the rest of the world to build awareness and support for local artists and companies.
SkiftX: The new route from London to Akureyri is helping make North Iceland more accessible. Why should business travelers consider venturing away from Reykjavík?
Þórarinsdóttir: We call Akureyri the capital of the north. It boasts a surprisingly vibrant cultural scene anchored by the Akureyri Art Museum and North Iceland Symphonic Orchestra. There’s also a thriving theater season for anyone willing to learn a little Icelandic.
For business travelers, plenty of space for meetings and conventions can be found at Hof, a beautiful conference venue and cultural center surrounded by excellent accommodation options.
All of this makes Akureyri an ideal location for bleisure travel or incentive trips — you’re surrounded by nature, from the fjords to the Forest Lagoon, and still within reach of local tourism experiences highlighting the region’s ancient history and contemporary arts and culture scene.
Iceland boasts the high-tech infrastructure, professional know-how, and world-class accommodation options needed to host incredible events. You can get from the boardroom to nature in just a few minutes.
SkiftX: What festivals, experiences, and events should be on the radar for business and leisure travelers?
Þórarinsdóttir: Iceland Airwaves is one of the biggest events in Reykjavík, but there are festivals in smaller towns all over the country year-round. In the Westfjords, there’s a great music festival around Easter called Aldrei fór ég suður, which literally means “I never went south.” It’s a great local experience that highlights Icelandic musicians, many of them from the Westfjords region. The Siglufjörður Folk Music Festival also takes place up north in July. Dark Music Days is a January festival devoted to contemporary music. There’s also the Blues Festival in April, the Jazz Festival in August, the Reykjavík International Film Festival in September, and Opera Days in October.
Iceland is also an important literary center — Reykjavík was the first non-native English-speaking country to be named a UNESCO City of Literature. The city’s annual Iceland Writer’s Retreat was originally established by Eliza Reid, who is now the first lady of Iceland. Finally, the Nordic Noir Literary Festival is also a highlight, celebrating the theme of darkness in all its forms.
One of the best ways we can inspire people to consider Iceland as a destination is to bring the Icelandic arts to where they are. For example, our Taste of Iceland event series introduces culture, music, literature, and culinary highlights to target markets around the world.
Another annual event, DesignMarch (aka Iceland’s design week), has been instrumental in promoting Icelandic design to the world through everything from jewelry to architecture. Nordic design is already well known, and Icelandic traditions are unique within that umbrella.
SkiftX: Many people expect Iceland to be dark and cold in the winter, but it’s actually an incredible time to visit. What are some highlights of visiting in the off-season?
Þórarinsdóttir: Everything you can experience in the high season you can experience at other times as well. Yes, there’s a short period where it’s almost dark 24/7, but that can be an incredible experience in itself. That’s when you have a chance to experience the Northern Lights, incredible views of the stars in the night sky, and an even closer connection to nature.
Icelanders take time off in the summer, so many of the prime cultural attractions take place during winter. The creative industry is buzzing during those off-season months, and there’s a sense of coziness and connection that comes from experiencing the warmth of creativity.
SkiftX: How is Iceland helping visitors make more sustainable choices?
Þórarinsdóttir: We actively invest in initiatives to promote sustainability and reduce the environmental impact of travel and tourism. For example, Visit Iceland’s carbon calculator helps visitors and event planners calculate the carbon footprint of their trip or agenda, with opportunities to offset that environmental impact in advance.
We launched the Icelandic Pledge a decade ago, but now it’s an interactive experience that encourages tourists to commit to the specific ways they will protect and respect the natural environment.
In addition, the Tourist Site Protection Fund is dedicated to maintaining and protecting tourist routes and attractions, ensuring tourist safety, and preserving Icelandic nature and wildlife.
Visitors looking for sustainable travel options can check out the Visit Iceland website, which offers a map of EV charging stations around the country. The share of electric vehicles in Iceland is constantly increasing and exploring the country using an emissions-free vehicle is a reliable option.
Finally, I also want to mention social sustainability. Slowing down and partaking in the local culture helps build a more sustainable society. It’s a kind of regenerative tourism — if a small community off the beaten path in Iceland is able to grow as a center for culture and tourism, locals are able to live and work in the place they call home instead of having to leave to seek opportunities elsewhere. Tourism is giving back to that community, and that’s an important factor of sustainability that should not be overlooked.
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This content was created collaboratively by Business Iceland and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.