Iceland opens borders to visitors, rigorous regime helped eliminate coronavirus

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The bars and restaurants are full. People are out enjoying themselves. Spectacular geological attractions are wide open to tourists. Anyone visiting Iceland right now could be forgiven for thinking they’ve arrived in a parallel universe where the coronavirus never happened.

It’s a tantalizing prospect. For people arriving from countries still under lockdown, the sheer normality of eating lunch in a bustling Reykjavik cafe is almost as thrilling as peering over the thundering abyss of Iceland’s mighty Gullfoss waterfall.

Added bonus for visitors

There’s an added bonus for anyone who does make the trip here at the moment. Usually crowded with travellers at this time of year, the country is empty. Visitors will more or less have attractions like Gullfoss or the explosive hot springs of Geysir to themselves.

This isn’t because Iceland has been immune to COVID-19. In its early stages, the infection wreaked havoc among the island’s relatively small population. But thanks to a rigorous regime of tracking and tracing, it has more or less been eliminated, giving the country confidence to reopen borders on June 15.

Two days later, on June 17, Iceland celebrated its annual national day with its usual zeal, locals mingling in the pretty Nordic streets of the capital. There were no face masks or social distancing as Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdóttir came out to address the crowds.

No room for complacency

There’s no complacency though. Before entering Iceland, travellers must wear a mask on flights and within the arrival halls of Keflavik Airport. On landing, they join a new queue for nose and throat swabs to filter out anyone who might be carrying COVID-19.

With the virus under control, the government is stepping up again, to help restart the economy, particularly the hard-hit tourism sector. That’s why it’s so keen to reopen its borders, despite the risk of arrivals bringing in fresh infection.

The latest official figures show the unemployment rate in Iceland doubled from January to April to 7% and has presumably been climbing ever since.

Iceland now hopes to be an example of how to recover from a pandemic as well as how to handle the virus itself.

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