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Coronavirus and tourism: Iceland pitches for post-lockdown visitors

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The village of Hvammstangi in northern Iceland on Thursday, April 30, 2020
The village of Hvammstangi in northern Iceland on Thursday, April 30, 2020   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Egill Bjarnason
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A pandemic might not be the best of times to court tourists, but Iceland believes it has a lot to offer these days.

Very few COVID-19 cases, vast open landscapes, and a low population density are some of the arguments Iceland’s tourism minister is touting to lure back travellers to the country.

"It’s easy to go around without having to be in close contact with other people," Minister of Tourism, Industry and Innovation Thordis Kolbrun Gylfadottir told Euronews in a live interview.

"And I think after hard weeks and months, it would be pretty amazing to come and walk around in beautiful nature with the social distancing (…) we have here in Iceland."

Iceland now plans to reopen to international travellers by June 15 to revive its tourism industry, which accounts for around 9 per cent of the country’s GDP.

"We need to learn to live with COVID-19," Gylfadottir said. "It’s also very important for the economy to have an open country."

Iceland has so far confirmed just over 1,800 cases of COVID-19 and 10 deaths from the disease. It has reported only a handful of new cases in May.

Tested on arrival

The government says it managed to contain the spread of the virus on the island thanks to a strategy of aggressive testing, contact tracing and quarantine.

Iceland has a population of just 350,000, but over a sixth of the country’s residents (57,000) have been tested for coronavirus so far, and 20,000 have been put in quarantine, according to the tourism minister.

Icelanders have been complying well with social distancing rules, and authorities have not felt the need to introduce any curfews, Gylfadottir said, adding that both Icelanders and foreign tourists should feel safe in the country.

When it reopens to tourists in June, Iceland plans to allow travellers to avoid a two-week quarantine if they test negative for the novel coronavirus when they land in the country.

The full logistics of this have yet to be ironed out, but here’s the idea: Tourists will be tested when they arrive at Reykjavik airport. While they wait for the results, they will be asked to download a tracking app and head to their hotel or other accommodation. A few hours later, they will be given the result of their test in a text message if it’s negative, and over a phone call if it’s positive.

So what happens if you test positive?

"This is something we’ll use the next couple of weeks to plan. But we will probably have housing for the ones that test positive. We will not put them back on a plane, for obvious reasons," the tourism minister said.

She said authorities will review the strategy over time and might reconsider it as the situation evolves.

"But the first few weeks we will definitely test everyone. Or they will decide to go on a 14-day quarantine, which I believe not many tourists will decide to do."

You can watch excerpts from the interview in the video player above.