|Photo by Mindy Cambiar|
In the quest for authentic, unique destinations, Iceland is coming out on top.
Foreign visitor arrivals were up by a whopping 31 percent for the first quarter of this year. That’s on the heels of a 24 percent increase in 2014 arrivals over 2013, per the European Travel Commission.
Iceland experts say a number of factors are driving those figures.
One of them is the Icelandair’s Stopover Service. It offers transatlantic passengers the option to make a stopover for up to seven nights with no additional airfare.
Stacy Ray, owner of Unique Travel & Getaways in Cary, NC, says her Iceland business is brisk.
“Right now, my clientele is family groups and multigenerational travelers. There’s something important that people might not realize. Kids under 12 can do all the tours for free when they accompany the adults. Local operators don’t charge for them. And teens aged 13-17 pay a reduced price. That’s great for families, because when you go to Iceland, you’re touring a lot,” Ray tells Travel Agent.
She typically recommends two different types of trips to clients.
“Reykjavik is fascinating. If you’ve never been, I suggest a Reykjavik getaway, with a few extra days in Akureyri,” said Ray.
Akureyri, in northern Iceland, was voted #1 in Lonely Planet’s “Best Places in Europe 2015.”
Another option for visitors is a trip on the Ring Road to the east, south and northeast.
“Those areas are far less populated, but thriving. They’re attractive to different types of travelers, such as hikers or snowmobilers,” said Ray.
Hollie Schmitt, owner of Memory Making Travel in Rubicon, WI, puts together customized self-drive trips to Iceland. The country is dear to her heart --she lived there for a year as a teen.
“It’s so easy to get around there. You can park on the side of road and go climb a mountain. There is so much natural beauty in Iceland, from the waterfalls, geysers and glaciers. When I lived there, we used to make our own soda from the bubbling water that came out of the ground. It’s an untouched country,” said Schmitt
Schmitt says the most in-demand time to travel to Iceland is the fall. It’s dark enough and the weather is still mild enough for peak viewing of the Northern Lights.
The Northern Lights are a prime attraction of the seven-night Iceland Diamond Circle Tour from Big Chill Adventures. Additional highlights include lava tubes, volcanic pillars, black sand dunes, stone forests, turf farmhouses, waterfalls, geothermal fields and active volcanoes.
The emphasis on geology is a no-brainer for the company, launched earlier this year.
Its co-founders are University of Michigan glaciology professor Sarah Aciego and her mother Mindy Cambiar, a professional photographer who has photographed Aciego’s research trips.
|Photo by Mindy Cambiar|
One needn’t be an expert to appreciate the power of the Icelandic landscape, said Aciego.
“The U.S. market is mostly about photo workshops and birding. I wanted to do something that gave people a broader experience with the landscape. You have ice atop active volcanoes; beautiful ice caves and lava tubes with ice crystals forming in them. At the same time, we’re staying in nice hotels and getting a flavor of the local food. We’re taking people to eat cheese from a sheep farm,” said Aciego.
“The thing that most people don’t realize is that Iceland has something for everyone. If you like to fish, hike, explore glaciers, or simply relax with thermal spa treatments, it’s all there,” said Ray.
One of Ray’s goals for 2016 is to highlight Iceland as a unique destination wedding venue. And she’s determined to spread the word about Iceland’s potential. Next spring, she’ll host an “Inspired by Iceland FAM” in association with Europe Express, Icelandair and Iceland Travel & Tourism.
The FAM takes place from February 18-23, 2016. It includes iconic landmarks, such as the Blue Lagoon, as well as tours of Reykjavik and the South Coast.
“Of course we’ll do hot springs and waterfalls. We’ll see the glaciers and volcanoes. We’re even going to a special Icelandic Horse show. The interest level so far has been great. Agents understand that their clients are looking for more unique destinations. Iceland is definitely one of them,” said Ray.