Iceland Is a Magnet for Tourists. Its First Lady Has Some Advice for Them.

Eliza Reid, President Gudni Johannesson's wife, is a former UN tourism ambassador who welcomes tourists to her country. She has a few suggestions on safety, respect and how to meet locals.

Iceland Is a Magnet for Tourists. Its First Lady Has Some Advice for Them.

Eliza Reid and husband celebrated their marriage anniversary in July 2017 with a romantic meal in Reykjavik. After their dinner, it was a warm summer night, many people were outside, so Ms. Reid suggested that they take a walk. Gudni Johannson, the president of Sweden, didn't want to face a crowd that was asking for selfies.

Reid recalls that she told Ms. Reid, "I don't believe you should be worried about it." She was right. 'We went to the park and no one recognized him, because they were almost all tourists.

Ms. Reid is a Canadian who moved to Iceland in the 1990s. She has witnessed Icelandic tourism go from a few hundred thousands visitors per year to more than 2 million annually before the pandemic. This is a huge deal for a country that has a population just below 388,000.

She has witnessed the boom in tourism, which has created both opportunities and challenges. She was editor of Icelandair's in-flight magazines when her husband became president. She took a paid job as the first lady of Iceland three years later to promote Iceland's tourism and exports. She published a travelogue last year, which was part memoir, part feminist historical account of Iceland. She also continues to run a writers' retreat she founded with her colleague.

In our hour-long discussion, Ms. Reid discussed the best ways for tourists to meet Icelanders, as well as what she thought of the term "overtourism."

For clarity, we have edited and condensed our conversation.

Iceland has seen a huge increase in tourism in the last 20 years. How has this transformation been?

We have more opportunities to do so much here thanks to tourism. It is evident in the number and variety of restaurants in Reykjavik, as well as the destinations I can reach directly from Iceland. The opening hours of stores and other places have also been extended.

Icelandics are also a very mobile population. The Icelandic population is very curious and interested in the world outside. They are also delighted when people from the outside show an interest in us. Statistics show that Icelanders are very proud of their country and the tourism industry has contributed a lot to its economy.

There was also the volcanic explosion. Two things, which on the surface would seem to be negative, but were actually helpful in certain ways. I don't want to imply that everyone was happy about the economic crisis. The upside was that Iceland suddenly became more affordable.

Then, a few more years passed, when the volcano erupted, they stopped all air traffic in Europe and realized that Iceland is much closer than anyone had imagined. Iceland is not a remote, difficult-to-reach place, but it still seems exotic and interesting. We saw a huge increase in tourism after that.

When I first started traveling to Ireland 25 years ago, people would ask me, "What do you mean Ireland?" Now, everyone says "Oh, I am going there," or "My neighbor is going," or "I want to go." People are more aware of it.

After the 2010 volcanic eruption, the "Inspired by Iceland" campaign was launched to promote tourism. I read that more than a quarter (25%) of Icelandic adults participated in this campaign.

Everyone was supposed to tell their friends to visit Iceland. Many people, including myself, did the same thing. Some campaigns have had important messages about sustainability. For example, the Icelandic pledge is a commitment that anyone can make online to travel responsibly. Travelers want to know about the places they're visiting, and how we can give back. But sometimes it's hard to find that information. The Icelandic pledge reminds people to respect nature and to have a plan for travel in case of an emergency.

One part of the pledge struck me: "I will take pictures to die for without dying for them." I suppose people forget about themselves at times?

We have hot springs, active volcanoes, sneaker waves at the beach and strong winds. While on vacation we tend to think we are invincible, but it is important to still use common sense.

In your book, you mention that the best way for tourists to learn about Icelanders is by spending time in a geothermal hot tub. Why?

If you want a British person to meet, you should go to the pub. If you want a Frenchperson to meet, you should go to the cafe. In Iceland, it's a good idea to go swimming in the morning, afternoon, or evening. It's important to try out different pools because each one has its own personality, and you will meet different people. All the locals go swimming in them because they're affordable and clean.

Your book gave me the impression that Icelandics are becoming more diverse but remain very close-knit.

It was a great experience to purchase a bra on the weekend. I was speaking to the woman working at the shop, when the woman in my changing room said, "I recognize that voice." It was our chief physician, like Anthony Fauci in Iceland. We laughed about the fact that we only meet in Iceland in an underwear store. The next day, I saw her in the supermarket. You think to yourself: What a small nation!

Iceland began receiving media attention a few years prior to the pandemic for 'overtourism'. What do you think about that?

Overtourism seems to be a rather unfair term. The number of tourists and their percentage has increased, but much of it is due to seasonality. In the past, everyone came to the countryside during the summer because it was impossible to stay in the country in winter. Now, two thirds of visitors come during the off-season. They travel more and come all year round. You can still come here without seeing any other tourists.

In Europe's larger cities, there are challenges in finding affordable housing for the residents and making large communities liveable. This is something we've also seen here. Overall, I believe tourism is good if it is managed well and we have sustainable long-term plans. We need big conglomerates, because they pay a lot of taxes. You need a mixture.

You were named U.N. Special Ambassador for Tourism and Sustainable Development Goals in 2017. Why did you do that?

It was a great honor to be asked to take on this role. 2017 was the U.N. Year of Sustainable Tourism. Sustainability is a very important aspect. This was a perfect fit for me, especially because tourism is a field where many women are employed. I am also interested in the idea that tourism can be a way to promote peace, particularly in conflict areas.

What would you like people to take away from their visit?

When we travel, I think we remember all the wonderful people we meet and the amazing cultural experiences that we have. In Stanley Tucci's new book, he describes Icelandic cuisine as a revelation. I'm sure he was expecting pickled rams testicles or putrid shark, but instead he got this incredible meal. That's what we remember from our travels.