The tourists are back in Iceland. But also whaling


Reykjavik, Iceland (CNN) — After a four-year hiatus, Iceland’s last whaling company, Hvalur hf., will resume hunting this summer, much to the chagrin of tourism officials.

As the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on Iceland’s tourism industry, the backlash from whaling is the last thing many tourism officials want.

“It is in fact well known and widely reported that the tourism industry believes that whaling damages the image of Iceland as a tourist destination,” said Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, executive director of the Icelandic Tourist Board. « All you have to do is watch how the whaling is reported in the foreign press. »

“It is often reported in larger publications with passionate coverage,” Jóhannes continued. « In the tourist industry, both in private companies and in public polls; in letters, telephone calls and other communications, whaling has a very definite effect, and tourist companies feel as soon as whaling comes back into the discussion. »

Company representatives expressed outrage at the planned whaling. « The tourism industry and most Icelandic citizens are against whaling, » said Ásberg Jónsson, CEO of Travel Connect, a large Reykjavík-based travel services company.

« It is saddening and frustrating to learn that this company, Hvalur, intends to resume killing these animals in Iceland. This is very damaging to the reputation of our country. This, in turn, has repercussions on our export and tourism industries. »

The stakes are high as tourism in Iceland came to a halt at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. “We are an island, so obviously the barrier to travel here is a bit higher than people visiting a neighboring country,” said Visit Iceland manager Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir.

Tourism dependency

Whale watching is a popular tourist activity in Iceland.

Matthew Williams-Ellis/VWPCS/AP

While Covid-19 has wreaked havoc in countries around the world, many countries are not as reliant on tourism as Iceland. Before the pandemic, tourism was the country’s main export.

According to data from the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce, growth in the sector peaked in 2017 when tourism exports accounted for 42% of the country’s total exports.

In the wake of the pandemic, GDP growth took a hit last year. Activities related to travel reservations, air transport, accommodation and catering decreased by 50-75% compared to 2019. This led to a contraction of the tourism sector by 3.9% of GDP in 2020 .

Hvalur last sent its vessels to hunt in the summer of 2018, and a total of 146 whales were caught during the season. Depending on the light, the whaling season usually begins in June and lasts until September. It is estimated that around 150 people work on the whalers at the whaling station in West Iceland and at the company’s processing facilities outside Reykjavík.

The tails of two 35-ton fin whales killed by hunters in June 2009.

The tails of two 35-ton fin whales killed by hunters in June 2009.

Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images

Some argue that whaling is part of Icelandic culture and should resume.

“Whaling has a long tradition here in Iceland, and I think reasonable and controlled whaling should be allowed,” a casual whaling station worker, who did not want to be identified, told CNN Travel. could affect his job. « It’s only about 125 to 150 fin whales hunted each year in the seven seasons since Iceland started whaling again in 2006. That year, I think only eight whales were hunted. «

Negative emails

Tourism workers say whaling damages Iceland's reputation.

Tourism workers say whaling damages Iceland’s reputation.

Mayall/ullstein bild/Getty Images

It is baffling to many that Hvalur, which is led by CEO Kristján Loftsson, continues whaling in light of environmental concerns and its poor financial situation.

« It’s hard for us to understand why, because not only is whaling a harmful practice, it’s no longer financially viable, » said Ásberg of Travel Connect.

Hvalur’s Loftsson declined to comment.

Whaling activities in Iceland account for around 3% of all whales hunted globally, according to a 2019 report by Iceland’s Ministry of Industry and Innovation. In 2017, the total revenue of whale watching businesses was 3.2 billion Icelandic kroner ($26.5 million). Meanwhile, Hvalur’s income from whaling activities in 2017 amounted to 1.7 billion crowns ($14.1 million).

However, whale watching tours bring in more revenue, as it is a popular activity with tourists year-round.

Many are fed up with the impact of just one company, especially as tourism businesses expect a return to « pre-Covid » tourist numbers this summer, and a controversial issue like hunting whale watching is disappointing.

« Overall, our travel brands haven’t seen a lot of cancellations because of this, but every once in a while we get negative emails about it, » Ásberg said. « We always explain that as a company we do not support whaling in any way. Everyone should be able to see these incredible creatures thriving in their natural habitat. »

One last hurray?

Tourism in Iceland has been hit by Covid.

Tourism in Iceland has been hit by Covid.

Ryan Pyle/Getty Images

The 2022 season could be Hvalur’s last as the current whaling license will expire in 2023, and Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture will then decide whether or not to stop issuing whaling licenses to Hvalur. from 2024. There appears to be little demand for whale products and the industry contributes very little to the Icelandic economy.

« All whaling in Icelandic waters is based on science and in accordance with international law, » Sigríður said. “Hvalur has the required license to undertake whaling activity this summer. It is up to the management and owners to determine whether they will use it and the Icelandic people and government to determine if future licenses will be granted. In the past three years, only one minke whale and no large whales have been captured. »

All Covid-19 restrictions were lifted in March 2022, and tourism leaders have high hopes for a good summer.

“Tourism in Iceland is bouncing back well,” said Sigríður. « In our projections, we expect near-normal numbers this summer and a full return next year. »

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