An Interview with Sif Gústavsson, Area Manager for Visit Iceland of North America

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Sif Gústavsson is the Area Manager for North America for Visit Iceland, the Icelandic government agency charged with promoting travel and trade to the island nation. She assumed this position in January 2011 after serving for two years as the North American Marketing Specialist for Iceland Travel, a leading Icelandic tour operator.

While working for Iceland Travel, Ms. Gústavsson continued to undertake projects for the Icelandic Tourist Board through Consultelligence, a firm that she launched in 2001

TRO: Please explain Visit Iceland’s operations in the U.S.

SG: Visit Iceland is the official Iceland tourism office for North America. Our main function is marketing.

TRO: From your experience, what is/are the most popular area(s) of Iceland for American travelers?

SG: The biggest draw for Iceland is the nature and travelers coming for their first visit usually stay in Reykjavik, the capital. The best part about Reykjavik is that it is “next door to nature” with only 30 minutes of driving time to some of Iceland’s most stunning natural attractions, such as waterfalls, geysers and geothermal areas.

Another popular area is Akureyri in north Iceland, which is our second largest city. In the summer it’s great for golf, tee-off time is at midnight due to the midnight sun. In the winter it has the best skiing in all of Iceland and, of course, is a great place to view the Northern Lights.

TRO: What itinerary would you suggest for a first-time visitor?

SG: For a short trip or weekend getaway it’s a great idea to stay in the capital area and venture out on day trips to places like the Golden Circle – which encompasses Iceland’s 3 “must see” nature sites – or the South Shore Adventure – which explores Iceland’s south coast of striking black sand beaches and, of course, our famous Eyjafjallajokull volcano. By staying in the capital area visitors can also experience Reykjavik’s unique cultural aspects, extraordinary dining scene and legendary nightlife. No trip to Iceland would be complete without taking a dip in one of our many geothermal spas, the most famous being the unique Blue Lagoon which is located near the airport and is a great last-day activity and wonderful way to say goodbye to Iceland.

For longer stays, the Ring Road itinerary is your best bet. There is a road that circumnavigates the island and visitors can travel around the island by motor coach or car and experience all the quaint coastal villages and the unbelievably variable nature around the island. The trip can be done in a week although some travelers like to take their time and explore the island over two weeks.

TRO: What is your favorite area of Iceland?

SG: Every time I travel to Iceland I discover something new. On my last visit I traveled to the southeast coast of Iceland and was blown away by the natural beauty there and how different it is from the southwest. I flew to the town of Hofn from Reykjavik on an early-morning flight, which took under an hour, and upon landing was treated to a view of wild reindeer running through fields of green moss and fertile farmlands. I traveled by ATV across a stark lava field to the tip of Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajokull, and “heard” it creaking as the ice melted in the glistening sunlight. I also took a boat ride on a stunning glacial lagoon teeming with giant blue icebergs upon which sat some curious seals checking us out. Hofn is the lobster capital of Northern Europe so we ended the trip by dining on succulent langoustine lobster drawn directly from the sea outside our window. This is not a day I’ll soon forget.

TRO: You mentioned the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano earlier. How did Visit Iceland handle its eruption that received tremendous media attention a little over a year ago? Also, what types of trends are you seeing in travel to the area now?

SG: Although we wouldn’t wish a natural disaster on any country, last year’s eruption really put Iceland on the map for a lot of North Americans, especially from the media attention that ensued. As the lava cooled and the volcano simmered down, tourists started to arrive and excursions to the volcano are now a staple among Icelandic tour operators. The event also led to an influx of tourists with a 16% increase in travelers from North America to Iceland for the first 11 months of 2010, versus the same period last year. This year we saw a 50% increase from North American travelers to Iceland in the first 6 months.

TRO: Please explain Visit Iceland’s relationships with travel agents.

SG: We are happy to work with travel agents and provide brochures and our five-minute DVD upon request. We also participate in several trade shows throughout the year. If an agent wants to travel to Iceland we are happy to help get TA rates with suppliers.

TRO: How can travel agents become involved with your agency?

SG: Currently we are creating and agent specialist program with Travel Uni which should be up and running by the end of this year. We are also in the process of creating a section of our website dedicated to travel trade.

TRO: Do you have any advice for agents who wish to market Iceland packages?

SG: Only to contact us!

TRO: Do you believe travelers gain the same experience from an Icelandic cruise as opposed to air/land packages? Please explain.

SG: Iceland’s small size makes it easy on travelers to experience all the country has to offer in a short amount of time. If there’s anything the cruise passengers may be missing out on, it is Iceland’s amazing cuisine. Iceland is an up-and-coming “foodie” destination, mainly because chefs have the advantage of cooking with pure and natural Icelandic ingredients. Inexpensive geothermal energy provides the resources to grow all sorts of organic fruits and vegetables in greenhouses and meat and dairy products are free of additives and growth hormones. Seafood is caught fresh daily from the glistening, pollution free waters of Iceland. Very often the mouth-watering halibut swimming in a delectable sauce on your dinner plate was carelessly swimming in the ocean during breakfast!

TRO: Are there any new projects or developments for Visit Iceland you would like to share with the travel agent community?

SG: May 2011 saw the opening of the visually stunning Harpa Concert Hall & Conference Center on the picturesque harbor in downtown Reykjavik. The newly opened Harpa is in full swing with a diverse range of musical performances as well as an amazing venue for meetings. Harpa’s beautiful glass façade is designed by renowned visual artist Olafur Eliasson, the creator of New York City‘s “Waterfalls” exhibit in 2008. Built using Iceland‘s natural and renewable resources, Harpa is the “greenest” meeting facility and concert venue of its kind.

TRO: Anything else you would like to add?

SG: Iceland is closer than you think…with only 4.5 hours flying time from the east coast.

Agents who wish to learn more about Visit Iceland may do so by visiting their website at www.VisitIceland.org.

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