The travel trade show for Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Vestnorden returned this month for its 36th staging on the Reykjanes peninsular. The event opened to nearly 500 guests in person, following a virtual showcase in 2020.
Organised by the North Atlantic Tourism Association (NATA), Vestnorden was held at Hljómahöl Music & Conference Center at the Icelandic Museum of Rock & Roll. Yes, such a place does exist! The event welcomed exhibitors from travel companies throughout the Nordic region and buyers from around the world. Participants were invited to take part in special tours of the destinations pre- and post-event so buyers had the chance to experience all three destinations in person.
After a tumultuous year for the travel sector, representatives from the Nordic destinations were keen to push a sense of optimism and innovation. As Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, head of Visit Iceland, explains to Breaking Travel News: “I think it’s so important, the collaboration that we have between these countries; we see there’s a lot of similarities between us and how we are trying to present ourselves to the world.
“As ‘the cool north,’ or with sustainability and equality – there are so many traits you want people to associate with the Nordics.”
Hjörtur Smarason, chief executive of Visit Greenland, agrees, suggesting multi-stop trips are a great way to explore. He continues: “I think it’s very, very important that we are combining the three countries. There’s a lot of synergy between all the islands. They have a lot of the same market segments and the same target groups - to bring in new agents from all around the world that are interested in this region makes a lot of sense. And here you have the opportunity to meet people in person and get to know them better, build up the relationship between a supplier and an agent. And this is just crucial for development.“
Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, head of Visit Iceland, led discussions as the event returned
The destinations have used the challenges of the past 18-months to push forward and emerge as leaders and innovators in the industry. As Oddný Arnarsdóttir, liaison for Iceland wellness sector and organiser of Vestnorden, describes: “We shifted our focus. We took time. We dug deeper. We acknowledged our strengths and also our weaknesses. And by doing so, we’ve generated a greater variety in tourism service all around the country, in all the regions, around the year.” From new, unique experiences, small scale, local, sustainable, bespoke products – from Michelin-starred restaurants to authentic dining experiences or living room concerts hosted by locals – the Nordic destinations offer experiences that are unlike anything found anywhere else.”
Sustainability emerged as a key theme, with Arnarsdóttir describing environmental impact as “the red thread that runs through our operations”.
Guðmundsdóttir elaborates: “We have this for the tourism policy specifically - but we also have this for all export industries in Iceland - to be leading in sustainability. So this is definitely something that the government is very focused on. It was tied into every major action to help. Can we do this in a more sustainable way? And does this fit with our overall goal, which is about sustainability in 2030? And I think that is very important.”
Hjörtur Smarason, chief executive of Visit Greenland, discussed how the destination was recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic
All three regions are acutely aware of the effects of climate change on their fragile and unique ecosystems. Smarason explains: “These are very delicate environments; sensitive environments where you really need to think about the impact of tourism. It’s also a necessity because you won’t survive for long as a tourism destination if you do not include sustainability when everything is so fragile.”
The destinations proximity to the polar region really puts them at the front line of climate change where the effects are visible – but this factor also seems to create an urgency and innovation in the countries’ responses to these challenges.
Guðrið Højgaard, chief executive of Visit Faroe Islands explains: “Our brand is our unique selling point, and the fact that while more and more destinations are getting more and more alike, our islands remain authentic and unique, and we want them to remain so – developing sustainably.”
During the last 18-months, where Covid-19 brought unprecedented disruptions to the travel industry, the Nordic destinations were innovative in creating infrastructure while also using the time to keep the conversations going with their customers. They did this by creating successful marketing campaigns, such as Let it all out from Iceland, which received global acclaim, and the Faroe Islands’ Remote Tourism, a detailed interactive experience which brought a great deal of press.
Guðrið Højgaard, chief executive of Visit Faroe Islands, argued sustainability must be central to the work of the organisation
These fresh ways of approaching tourism in difficult circumstances are indicative of the areas of focus at Vestnorden and the selling points of the Nordic region in general: modern, innovative, inclusive and always with a feel for the environmental impact of every aspect of the industry. Despite talk of overtourism, pre-Covid-19, the destinations are also relatively undeveloped markets with space for innovation and new products. This is particularly the case for Greenland, which celebrates new transport routes opening up the destination for new development possibilities.
The mood at the trade show was elated as many people were travelling for the first time since Covid-19. Around 3,400 meetings, tours and experiences, an opening party held at the Blue Lagoon and a raucous closing dinner kept the conference buzzing throughout. As Guðmundsdóttir puts it: “Last year, we did the first ever virtual version of this, and we had 1,300 meetings. But that doesn’t replace the face-to-face, meeting people to sit together, talk, but also informally, to get together…. So that’s also another aspect of why this is so important. We were very happy that we were able to do in- person.”
It is still too early to see how the industry will change and recover as we enter the post-pandemic world, but feelings are optimistic – with numbers increasing as each market sector opens up and restrictions begin to lift. One trend seems to be a shift towards longer stays and higher spending as consumers seek once-in-a-lifetime experiences and true escapes from the everyday. Added to this, as remote working becomes the norm, travellers will be keen to access destinations for extended stays, with more meaningful and in-depth interactions with locations.
As Guðmundsdóttir concludes: “A lot of people want their travel maybe to mean more, and they’ve been saving up a lot to get to do more things. I think that’s a very positive trend and hopefully that will continue. I think that is more sustainable too. I think people want to get back to normalcy, because I travel is such a joy.”
Words and images: Sapphire Goss