Icelander visits Juneau to share advice for handling growing tourism industry

The iconic mountain of Kirkjufell in west Iceland, one of the country's top five most visited places. (Public domain photo by moonjazz)
The iconic mountain of Kirkjufell in western Iceland, one of the country’s most visited places. (Public domain photo by moonjazz)

Cruise season is closing in. Every year, Juneau sees more and more tourists. And while the rapid growth has been a boon for business, it’s also caused challenges.

But this week’s annual Innovation Summit in Juneau featured an expert from halfway around the world. She came with advice on how to tackle tourism.

Juneau is Alaska’s most visited city in the summer.

This summer, 1.3 million cruise ship passengers are expected to visit. That’s 140,000 more than last year.

“And we’re experiencing the impacts of that — the positive impacts, but also the impacts on community over the last several years,” said Brian Holst, executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council. He works with industry leaders to increase local business opportunities.

But some in the visitor industry say the cracks are beginning to show, with long lines and wait times at some of the most popular tourist sites and traffic jams downtown.

When they went looking for advice, Holst said they decided to look outside Alaska.

“And we found a place that’s similar — northern location that’s growing actually faster and has been growing faster — in Iceland,” Holst said.

They discovered the Iceland Tourism Cluster initiative. Holst visited Iceland with a local delegation last year and met Ásta Kristín Sigurjónsdóttir, the intiative’s CEO.

Sigurjónsdóttir came to Juneau’s Innovation Summit and explained Iceland’s rise in popularity as a tourist destination.

Ásta Kristín Sigurjónsdóttir, CEO of the Iceland Tourism Cluster, presents at the Innovation Summit in Juneau on Feb. 20, 2019. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)
Ásta Kristín Sigurjónsdóttir, CEO of the Iceland Tourism Cluster, presents at the Innovation Summit in Juneau on Feb. 20, 2019. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Much like Southeast Alaska, the visitors the tiny island nation sees every summer far outnumber its population of 340,000 residents.

Today, 2.5 million tourists visit each year.

“We have drifted away from counting the tourists,” Sigurjónsdóttir said. “It doesn’t matter how many they are, we just have to look at the value that they bring.”

With its climate and unspoiled natural beauty, it’s easy to see the similarities between Iceland and Juneau.

But Iceland’s visitors mostly come by plane. They only see about 200,000 cruise ship visitors annually.

Still, the strain on local resources and congestion at tourist sites was a major issue for them too.

Sigurjónsdóttir said it took several years for them to get a handle on the growth.

The creation of the tourism group helped by allowing businesses to team up to tackle the challenges.

They developed marketing campaigns to better inform visitors about being safe and respectful.

The “Iceland Academy” video series features Icelanders sharing playful advice, like proper hot tub etiquette.

Now, Sigurjónsdóttir said they’re focused on looking ahead.

“It is a challenge, of course, when something grows so fast, like 20, 30 to 40 percent per year,” she said. “So we want to manage it for the longer run, because we want to be sustainable in tourism and we are looking at the next 20, 30, 40 to 50 years in tourism.”

Although the growth has slowed down now, Sigurjónsdóttir said they’ve put more energy into increasing the number of winter visitors.

They’ve managed to turn tourism into a year-round industry.

That’s something Juneau would like to do too.

Holst said October through April remains a largely untapped market.

“Ásta mentioned being proactive, and this is exactly what we’re trying to be,” he said.

Alaskans curious about Iceland can see for themselves. Icelandair has direct flights from Anchorage to Reykjavik.

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