On luxury, sustainability and authentic experiences

Exclusive interview: Eliza Reid – First Lady of Iceland, United Nations Special Ambassador for Tourism and the Sustainable Development Goals

Eliza Jean Reid, First Lady of Iceland, is attending ITB Berlin “wearing several hats”, as First Lady, but also in her role as Special Ambassador for the UN, and at the same time talking about luxury travel. We asked her how these roles co-exist

As travellers become increasingly aware of the social and environmental impact of their visits, they seek more “authentic” experiences that connect them with the local people, culture and nature of the country they are visiting. The luxury travel sector is no different, and in fact, will enable tourists to contribute in a sustainable way to the countries that they visit.

TODAY TOURISM IS THE LARGEST EXPORT SECTOR IN ICELAND, ACCOUNTING FOR 42% OF TOTAL FOREIGN CURRENCY REVENUE IN 2018 (Q1-3).

How important is tourism to Iceland’s economy today, and how is luxury travel evolving there? Is your background as a travel writer influencing this in any way do you think?
Tourism played a crucial role in the recovery of the Icelandic economy and in local job creation following the 2008 recession. Today tourism is the largest export sector in Iceland, accounting for 42% of total foreign currency revenue in 2018 (Q1-3). The sector has grown from accounting for 7.9% of total jobs in Iceland in 2010 to 15.7% in 2018. Tourism has strengthened various local services and cultural

activities around the country, benefitting both locals and visitors. Following rapid growth in tourism in recent years, an increasing range of services and experiences are available to visitors, including luxury travellers.

Visitors have been enjoying salmon fishing in Icelandic rivers for decades, but now there is a vast array of luxury activities on offer, such as unique outdoor excursions, helicopter rides, exclusive geothermal spa experiences, heliskiing, and more. The availability and variety of luxury accommodation has also increased in recent years.

As a travel writer, I endeavoured to share my experiences of a different location in an entertaining way, hoping to help perhaps shed a new light on a certain region or to inspire people to undertake their own trip. I didn’t write for any specific market sector, but I would always encourage sustainable tourism, whether in the luxury sector or elsewhere.

How do you feel the “concept” of luxury travel is changing over time? I believe, or hope, that luxury travellers are seeking more sustainable experiences that benefit both themselves and the host community, and hope they travel with increased awareness of both the positive and negatives effects their visits can have on a community, while of course aiming to increase the former and minimise or eliminate the latter.

What more should be done in order for the industry to achieve sustainable development goals? Where are we lacking?
It is important to create good examples and follow the ones that are emerging all over the world. Global tourism is increasing, and awareness of responsible tourism along with it. Iceland is an example of a country with spectacular but fragile nature. Marketing efforts for Icelandic tourism are focused on preserving nature by encouraging visitors to travel to different regions of Iceland and to travel all year round to work against too much strain on specific spots and timings. Another key message from my country has been to encourage responsible travel

by, for example, introducing “The Icelandic Pledge,” which visitors read and commit to follow eight points that highlight how to travel around Iceland in a responsible way.

On the other hand, do you have any best-case examples?
The Icelandic Pledge could be mentioned here as an example that has been followed by other destinations, such as New Zealand and Hawaii. Hopefully, these kinds of messages, where visitors and locals join hands in preserving destinations, will become more visible until this will be an integral part of travelling.

How important is the ITB Berlin Convention in terms of raising awareness and creating roadmaps for a better future for the industry and the world?
ITB Berlin Convention definitely provides an important international platform for raising awareness and making clear that we need to change together. It is a call to action to secure sustainability – for a better future, especially for the next generations.


Photo: Eliza Reid, First Lady of Iceland, United Nations Special Ambassador for Tourism and the Sustainable Development Goals

Photo: Gudmundur Thor Karason