Heathrow airport had become a smaller version of a world we already know well: shuttered shops, socially distanced queueing, masks (mandatory inside the terminal), sanitiser stations, hellos and goodbyes without hugs and kisses.
I was bound for Iceland, where the two-week quarantine for tourists coming from Europe was dropped on June 15 — on the condition they take a Covid-19 test on arrival. Boarding the Icelandair flight was slightly slower than usual, as staff scrutinised bags, which had to fit under seats to prevent cross-contamination in overhead compartments. There were few passengers, though: I had a row of seats to myself. The crew, in masks and gloves, apologised for the lack of a meal service, instead handing out bottles of water. I nodded off soon after take-off.
When I woke, Iceland was rising up from the rough Atlantic like a newly discovered land. We descended over farms and lava fields, through shafts of sunshine and columns of heavy rain. The country has had a good Covid, as the expression now goes, having declared a state of emergency relatively early, back in February. To date there have been 10 deaths and fewer than 2,000 cases of the virus, in a population of 364,000; according to the Directorate of Health, there are currently 11 active infections in the country. It could be worse, as we know.
Visitors must complete a short pre-departure questionnaire on a government website, confirming they wish to take the Covid-19 test on landing rather than endure a two-week quarantine. The tests were free in June, but now cost Isk11,000 (£64), a fee that some tour operators are offering to cover. Completing the questionnaire generates a barcode, which I showed to airport officials on my phone. They directed me to an open booth where two staff, bedecked in PPE, greeted me. “Don’t worry,” one said. “This isn’t painful, just a little uncomfortable.” He took a swab from my throat (easy) and nose (awkward). I sniffed. “Would you like a tissue?’ he asked.
In less than a minute I was on my way, with a sheet of paper requesting I download the government tracing app and informing me I’d receive my test result within twelve hours. During that time, visitors do not have to quarantine, but are requested to avoid public transport, maintain social distancing and wash their hands frequently.
At passport control, I sneezed three times. At the car rental agency, I was still sniffing. “Sorry,” I said. “It’s the swab, not Covid . . . ” before slightly regretting the joke. “Don’t worry,” the woman laughed. “I’m glad tourists are coming back.” Less than half an hour after landing I was behind the wheel of my rental car. I rolled down the windows, stripped off my mask and pressed down the accelerator.
I headed east, driving two hours to the Hotel Rangá. I threw my bag in my room, walked down to a nearby river and breathed in the fresh Atlantic air. I sat by the water, watching a pair of whimbrels on the banks, backdropped by swaths of purple lupin. Beyond was the snow cap of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010, disrupting air travel for millions. What seemed a crisis at the time seems a minor blip now.
That evening in the hotel, I was watchful around others, stepping backwards if someone approached, gesturing greetings rather than shaking hands, pumping sanitiser every time I passed through the lobby. I seemed to be the only one — naturally perhaps, given I was the fresh arrival — and outside of the airport I saw no masks, no Perspex screens, no tape on the ground. But as I sat down for dinner, my phone buzzed. My Covid-19 test was negative. I was free.
The following morning I woke early, in part because it never gets dark here at this time of year. I headed out on a route taking in some of the country’s best-known landmarks, eager to see how they might look without the usual cruise ship crowds and tour buses. I stopped at Skógafoss, climbing 60 metres to gauge the full drop of one of the island’s most powerful waterfalls; there were three other visitors. At Geysir, a must-see on the Golden Circle, Iceland’s most popular tourist route, a few couples and one family waited with me to watch the jet of hot water and steam explode into the sky.
Later, I took a ferry to the Vestmannaeyjar, the Westman Islands, home to the world’s largest puffin colony. They spend most of the time at sea but I spotted a few birds, flying frantically or hopping up the cliffs. I stopped by the Eldheimar Museum where the director Kristín Jóhannsdóttir told me last year 170,000 visitors came to see their exhibitions on the 1973 volcanic eruption here. “This year we might get 10 per cent of that,” she said, pausing before qualifying, “if we’re lucky.’
For the last couple of years, Iceland has been a case study for the pressures of overtourism, with rents in the capital Reykjavík soaring as homes became short-term lets, and locals worried the city risked losing its identity. That conversation has fallen suddenly silent. At the Hotel Rangá, owner Fridrik Palsson said occupancy in May was 15 per cent of what it had been last year. “It’s a different debate now, about how to recover tourism,” he said. “But everyone I speak to also believes this is a chance for us, wondering what we can do better, how we want tourism to look on the other side.”
Over the next couple of days, I began to realise my trip was a hint of how holidays used to be when the world travelled less. That was most evident at the Blue Lagoon, the geothermal spa which usually has several thousand guests per day. When I visited, immersing myself in the warm mineral-rich pools, the steam swirling around me, often I couldn’t see another person.
My goal had been to find out if travel in 2020 would merit the extra hassles and anxieties of the journey. Resoundingly, yes. And the uncomfortable Covid-19 test? Let’s call it a ticket to enter a (near) virus-free world. That must be worth it.
On my last night, with the summer sun still high, I climbed the dramatic basaltic cliffs in Thingvellir National Park, the meeting place of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. As I watched solitary fulmar soaring above, I allowed myself for an instant to feel the uninhibitedness of the past, and to long for it again.
Iceland’s borders are open to those travelling from EU and Schengen-area countries subject to testing or quarantine; on June 30 the government announced it would soon also be admitting those coming from another 15 countries (including Australia, Canada and Japan) but an exact date has yet to be announced; see government.is for the latest details. At the time of writing travellers coming from the UK still face a 14-day quarantine when they return home, and the Foreign Office advice against non-essential travel means many travel insurance policies will be invalid, though changes are expected within days.
Michelle Jana Chan was a guest of Discover the World (discover-the-world.com) and had a three-night self-drive trip to southern Iceland staying at Hotel Ranga half-board, from £669 per person, including car hire. During July and August the company is also covering the cost of Covid tests on arrival (otherwise Isk11,000 (£64) per person; children born in 2005 or later are exempt).
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