To describe Iceland as Empty Iceland is a phrase I didn’t expect to ever get to write. Iceland has never been overcrowded, despite what the media may suggest. But, it was certainly not empty back at the peak of tourism in 2018. After all, that’s why Hidden Iceland emerged in the first place. To find hidden sites or get to the popular spots at the right times. Read on to learn about why Iceland should be your next destination and some of our top places to visit.
Nowadays, Iceland is positively empty! Of course this is mainly because of the current COVID-19 restrictions. But in actual fact, Iceland’s was already seeing slight declines in annual visitor numbers. Tourism figures were showing a drop in 2019, compared to 2018. Nearly 20% in some quarters. This trend was due to continue into 2020 and 2021 if it wasn’t for the pandemic. Now that drop is closer to 90%. And although that drop will (hopefully) not be so stark once restrictions are eased they are not expected to reach the dizzying heights of 2018 again until at least 2024. Current restrictions can be read here.
The big question that will undoubtedly come to mind for you is, ‘will it still be Empty Iceland by the time I come?’ After all, many people reading this are potentially booking many months in advance and taking advantage of the current discounts and flexible cancellation policies. Dreaming of travel rather than actively planning right now. An understandable concern.
So this blog post will hopefully cover some of the more burning questions about Iceland and why this little country is the perfect socially distant travel destination. Whether you are coming as early as summer 2021, or want to wait a little longer into autumn and winter, Iceland has plenty to keep you happy.
Iceland was never crowded
What if I told you that Iceland was never overcrowded? Even during its peak in 2018! Back then, Iceland welcomed roughly 2.3 million visitors. But by 2019 the numbers had dropped to around 2 million tourists. Many were suggesting that would further erode to 1.8 million in 2020 following the collapse of Iceland’s second biggest airline, WOW Air. When you compare those meagre figures to the 10 million who frequented the much smaller in size islands of Hawaii and you can see why I say Iceland was never overcrowded.
Sadly, the reason for the negative press was likely due to the fact that many of you fly into the sole International Airport, Keflavik, spend a few days on the one main high street, Laugavegur, and jump in a big bus to see the most popular sights of the Golden Circle. Doing those activities alone will undoubtedly make you feel a bit like a sardine. But, if you join Hidden Iceland on our small group tours or on our fully customisable private tours, and go a little further afield you’ll start to see an Iceland less explored. Even in the height of summer! This remote island in the middle of the Atlantic has many secret still to share and places untouched.
Why will Iceland remain empty following the pandemic?
If you’re lucky enough to be able to travel safely right now then you will truly see Iceland with no tourists at each destination. Once the 5 day quarantine is loosened and more countries are able to travel again I’ve no doubt tourists will want to frequent the shores of Iceland again. However, we don’t think it will be business as usual. Not for a very long time.
Here are a few reasons why the tourist numbers will not jump back up to 2 million, at least not in the next few years.
WOW Air, Iceland’s second largest airline, went bankrupt in the spring of 2019. Icelandair, Iceland’s current largest airline, is still surviving, but at a greatly diminished capacity. These two airlines serviced well over half of all tourist back in 2018. So even if the ‘demand’ skyrockets in 2021, the ‘supply’ (seats on planes) will create a limiting factor until the airlines can successfully scale up.
The travel agencies, tour operators and even the hotels will take time to recover. This means that the largest companies who market and operate in Iceland won’t get back to full capacity for quite some time.
People are predicted to be more weary of travel until the virus has been completely eradicated worldwide, which is unlikely in 2021.
All this spells out a quiet 2021. Maybe even an Empty Iceland…well maybe not. But there will certainly be way less tourists than pre-pandemic numbers. What a great time to come to Iceland, no?
Should I book my trip now for 2021?
This is a difficult question. One that requires you to weigh up your own personal risks as well as learning as much as you can about your travel options. Hidden Iceland is here to answer any burning questions, but only you can make that final decision.
What we can say with confidence however, is that booking now for 2021 will be the most affordable time to do it. It will also come with little financial risk. Why?
Hidden Iceland are running a 25% discount special offer on bookings until the end of 2020 for travel in 2021 or beyond.
The current exchange rate due to the pandemic between USD/ GBP/ EUR and ISK has made Iceland far cheaper.
We can change your travel dates without any fees if you need to postpone your travel as it gets nearer.
Many hotels and restaurants are running their own discounts as well.
Our cancellation policy allows you to cancel very close to departure time for scheduled tours and is very flexible for private tours.
Top spots to travel to in Iceland in 2021
So, without further ado I’d like to reveal my top spots for travel in a post COVID-19 world. Each place has a mix of solitude, adventure and beauty. I’ve focused on places that are accessible at all times of the year. So if you are hoping to come to Iceland in summer or want to wait until autumn or winter these places are great regardless.
1. Glacier hiking in Vatnajökull National Park
From day 1, Hidden Iceland explored Iceland’s glaciers with their customers. In fact, two of the founders of the company were professional glacier guides before running Hidden Iceland. It is one of the main reasons for setting up the company. It is our passion. And it is one of the best places to hide from other tourists.
Hidden Iceland’s glacier hikes are family friendly and designed for first timers. In summer, the ice has a ‘summer crust’ allowing you to walk easily over the surface. This allows your qualified guide to take you on an adventurous tour. Peering into bottomless holes, traversing beautiful crevasses and taking a moment to enjoy the unmatched views while on the ice. This experience is something you will never forget. In fact, the glacier hike often becomes our guest’s highlight of their entire trip.
Thankfully, some of Iceland’s glaciers are accessible all year round. We run a day trip to the Sólheimajökull glacier from Reykjavik on our South Coast: Fire and Ice tour year round. We don’t hike on this glacier though, only walk through the valley for a great glacier viewpoint.
It’s the glaciers in the Vatnajökull National Park that truly feel like an escape from the normal tourist routes. My personal favourite is Falljökull, a glacier that is known for its spiky ice features (seracs) pointing in every different direction. On our 2 day Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon we spend around 4 hours exploring this icy giant. The view of the glaciers icy cliff face (ice fall) has no equal.
In autumn, the ice loses its summer crust and takes on a blue shimmer. We don’t tend to explore as far in these colder months but the ice itself becomes almost translucent on the surface creating a magical experience well worth the chill in the air.
By winter, the ice is truly frozen in place. This means the slow movement and melting associated with the rest of the year stops (temporarily). With this pause of motion it becomes safe to delve into the ice…under the surface. This is where the ice caves of the winter are found. Between November and March, rather than exploring the glaciers in the National Park, we focus on discovering bright blue ice caves.
This part of the country is also great for incredible views of active volcanoes, ice caps and black sand beaches littered with freshly calved icebergs.
One way or another, if you add in a glacier to your Iceland adventure in 2021 you will not be disappointed.
2. The Golden Circle without the crowds
The Golden Circle is by far the most popular area to travel to in Iceland. You may think this is a bit of a strange place to include in an Empty Iceland article. But 2021 is going to be quite different in this celebrated part of Iceland. With erupting geysers, thunderous waterfalls and a prominent tectonic rift zone you can guess why it’s normally quite busy. It’s also only a one hour drive to the first sight at Þingvellir National Park where the longest surviving parliament presided from 930AD.
Normally, when travelling around the Golden Circle you have to be careful to avoid the morning and mid-day crowds. In fact, our Golden Circle: Platinum tour was designed specifically with that in mind. We would go the opposite way to all the big bus companies, starting at the secluded Secret Lagoon just as it opened in the morning. We then have a relaxed lunch at the tranquil Friðheimar Tomato Farm. It’s only once the morning and mid-day crowds start to disappear that we would check out the more traditional sights like the Gullfoss Waterfall.
Even with all the precautions we would take, it was of course still going to be a little crowded when arriving at the erupting geyser. However, in 2021 we aren’t expecting the big buses and their crowds to be around. This allows us more flexibility to travel around the Golden Circle in whichever direction we want, without worrying too much about crowds.
In summer, we take our time enjoying the warm and long days. The Icelandic horses are at their most playful at this time of year. By autumn and winter, you can extend the tour (if private) to include a Northern Lights Add On if the weather is favourable.
3. Overnight in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
The Snæfellsnes peninsula is only 2 hours from Reykjavik and yet enjoys a level of solitude seen even during the last peak season in 2018. In summer, we love to travel around the stunning landscape under the midnight sun. With its broken sea cliffs, black sand beaches, sleepy fishing villages, and towering mountains, Snæfellsnes is often called ‘mini-Iceland’. There’s a reason Jules Verne based his most popular book, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, in this forgotten part of Iceland.
Although this spot was quieter than most, despite its accessibility, we would still endeavour to go the opposite way that the tour books suggested. Just in case.
For those willing to come to this area on a private tour there’s so much more to see than can fit into one day. A pod of orca whales (killer whales) call this area home and is a great addition to your scenic trip. Perhaps horse riding along the sandy beaches is more to your liking. By autumn and winter, when the daylight hours are limited it’s also an ideal spot for seeing the northern lights. Private 2 day Snæfellsnes Northern Lights tour uses a wonderful hotel along the shore to rest for the night.
4. Wildlife in Iceland
Of course this final place is no place at all. But rather all places. From the sunny Westman Islands in the south to the forgotten sea cliffs of the Westfjords in the north west, wildlife is rife across the country. This point is slightly more summer centric of course, since much of the bird life migrates out of the country at the end of August. However, autumn, spring and winter still have their fair share of animals to get a few sneaky pictures of, from the elusive Arctic Fox to the sporadic Reindeer.
In summer, the countryside erupts with life. Over 10 million Atlantic puffins nest on the cliff sides across the country to mate. The Arctic Tern travels over 10,000km to lay their eggs on the unspoiled ground near the shore. 20 different whales species feed in the nutrient rich waters and last but not least, the Icelandic sheep are released into the wild to roam free. Add in the stalwart Icelandic horses, Arctic foxes, solitary reindeer and fluffy ptarmigan birds, and you will realise that Iceland is not the barren tundra once imagined.
You can see most of these animals on many of our Hidden Iceland private and scheduled tours. If you have a specific sighting you are hoping to get, make sure to reach out to us before booking.
Flexible bookings and discounts
So these are just some of the places that we consider a great 2021 destination. In fact, quite a lot of our current guests like to combine them into a week long adventure. Whichever part of Iceland inspires you for travel in 2021 feel free to get in touch. You can contact us directly here. Or check out our private tour page for something a little more personalised. Make sure to quote TRAVEL21 for your 25% discount on small group tours, valid for the entire year in 2021.
Hi, I am Ryan Connolly; Co-Founder and Marketing Manager of Hidden Iceland.
I’ve guided in multiple countries around the world and stepped foot on all 7 continents. My passion for the outdoors, science, nature, glaciers and volcanoes has led me to study and write about Iceland. I have been interviewed in Forbes, Conde Nast Traveller and Travel Pulse on various subjects.