A nasal swab is a small price to pay to visit a country that had a pandemic plan ready and stuck to it.
The world’s tourism hot spots are gradually reopening after the great lockdown, but they don’t look very alluring. Going to the beach will require spacing out parasols and forgetting about the drinks service, while a city break in Europe might mean keeping a mask on while shopping. Not to mention the quarantines being imposed to limit imported infections, hardly a great way to start a vacation. Public health has become a huge factor in tourism: “Covid-free” is the new five-star rating.
If there’s one destination in particular that might turn into an ideal getaway from Covid-19, it’s Iceland. The tiny island nation — population 360,000 — has long been known for its stunning landscapes, views of the Northern Lights, lava caves and other vistas featured in shows like Game of Thrones. Recently it has gained plaudits as a coronavirus case study, having kept its outbreak under control without imposing a messy or draconian lockdown. And it may very well show the way for countries trying to strike a balance between wooing visitors and avoiding a flare-up in cases.
From the start of the outbreak, Iceland stood out from much of Europe by having a proactive pandemic plan ready and sticking to it. The country began testing widely for Covid-19 in February, even before its first declared case. It even tested people who showed no symptoms, partnering with a Reykjavik-based company called DeCODE Genetics to do so.
Iceland has tested more people per capita than anywhere else. By quarantining and tracing the contacts of positive cases, the country avoided the extremes of either an indiscriminate lockdown or simply letting the virus rip (in the hope of achieving group immunity). The result is a nation with just 1,802 cases and 10 deaths; its estimated mortality rate of 0.6% is lower than that of France, Italy and Sweden.
This isn’t to ignore the impact of demographics — Iceland’s median age is about 36, 10 years below Italy’s — or the ease of social distancing in a country whose population density is on par with Montana in the U.S. But effective government planning, trusted scientific advice and testing played a key role. All of these things are now being brought to bear on tourism.
Rather than seek out special deals or exclusive “travel bubbles” with certain countries, Iceland’s plan is, from June 15, to offer all visitors the choice between two-week quarantine or a Covid-19 test (the cost of which may have to be repaid at a later date). The obvious incentive to take the test means all visitors are being trusted to be responsible globetrotters, not just those with a certain passport. Indeed, DeCODE Genetics’s research on the infection’s spread at the beginning of March found it was people arriving from Britain and Europe, rather than China, who were bringing the virus into Iceland. (At the time, Icelandic warnings about its findings to countries like Austria went unheeded.) Rather than close borders or try to pick preferential partners, it’s better to track and trace the infection.