Dear guests, it is a true honour and pleasure to be with you here today. The What Works conference is a powerful forum to discuss challenges, opportunities and initiatives concerning social progress and sustainable development, not only in Iceland, but in a global context.
The discussion on tourism at this pre-summit event is furthermore a welcome addition that I would like to thank the organisers for especially.
I am also grateful that Mr Roberto Artavia Loria, the Vice-Chair of the Social Progress Imperative, was able to come all this way to tell us about Costa Rica's pioneering and award-winning work on applying the Social Progress Index to tourism destinations.
We all know how important it is to be able to learn from each other, and sharing best practices in tourism governance and policy is of particular value for countries that have seen large increases in the numbers of visitors. Sustainability is a key subject for us to focus on. We have the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals before us. We have signed the Paris agreement. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation has declared this year the year of sustainable tourism for development.
The message from the international community is clear: Progress needs to serve our societies first and foremost, and in order to do so, gains need to be optimised in a balanced way, taking the environment and society into consideration as well as the economy. That applies no less to tourism than it does to any other industry.
I believe tourism is primarily a force for good. A force for increased cultural understanding and improved quality of life in destinations. But for it to be that kind of force, like any other industry, it needs to be managed. And for it to be managed, its effects need to be measured. Best practices need to be learned, and those learnings applied. But even that is not enough. We need to show initiative in order to truly progress. New and alternative tools need to be developed and shared in order to make better decisions. With its work on applying the Social Progress Index to tourism, Costa Rica goes forward as a shining example in this regard.
Costa Rica and Iceland may seem like two very different destinations at first. One is a tropical Central American country teeming with colourful wildlife, the other a cold, windswept island in the North Atlantic Ocean. But the similarities are surprising. Both are small countries, considered exotic in their own way, with rugged, volcanic landscapes that are well suited to adventurous activities. Both boast an incredible, but fragile, natural landscape. In Costa Rica: dense rainforests and an extraordinary variety of flora and fauna. In Iceland: large expanses of rugged wilderness, bubbling geothermal sites and glaciers. No wonder that the majority of tourists visit our two countries to enjoy nature, although cultural heritage also plays an important role.
Costa Rica and Iceland have both experienced a tourism boom in recent times, with tourism surpassing the more established and traditional industries of each country in terms of foreign exchange earnings. Last year, Costa Rica received a record 2.9 million international tourists. Iceland received a record 1.8 million - and will this year receive around 2.3 million. Of course, a tourism boom like this tends to magnify the many benefits and at the same time the many challenges of the industry's development, as I believe our friends from Costa Rica will be able to confirm.
In Iceland, the recent growth in tourism has not only helped to pull the country out of a deep economic crisis; it has changed our society, on the whole for the better, I think most would agree. With flights to more destinations at lower prices, we Icelanders, traditionally an isolated nation, can travel abroad more than ever. We also have a much wider variety of services to choose from - restaurants, shops and leisure activities. Tourism has also given us a sense of pride and made us recognise even more the value of preserving our nature and cultural heritage.
On the other hand, we are also starting to see signs of negative effects of tourism - economic, environmental and social. Popular natural attractions are under pressure from the tourist footprint. Short-term rentals are putting pressure on the housing market. We hear some complaints about overcrowding and lack of infrastructure at certain sites.
When things develop at such a pace it can be all too easy to get carried away – until all of a sudden it is too late. I believe such a situation can be prevented if we never lose sight of the overall goal of tourism, which in my mind is to improve the quality of life for residents. And by doing that, we improve the visitor experience as well - and a virtuous cycle is created. A great destination should also be a great place to live, and vice-versa.
Here in Iceland we are taking important steps to better involve the local community in tourism decisions, for example through the development and implementation of regional Destination Management Plans. We also have tools in place to encourage wider distribution of tourists around the country, for example a flight development fund in order to encourage direct flights to North and East Iceland. I have proposed changes to the Tourist Site Construction Fund which will encourage investment in new attractions in lesser visited areas. Our award-winning marketing campaign, “Inspired by Iceland”, has successfully involved local people in highlighting the attractiveness of each region and our cultural attractions such as Icelandic history, food and music, to a greater degree than before.
We are on the right track but nonetheless we need to step up our game. I would like to see Iceland move towards a high value, low impact tourism model. Take active steps to make tourism in Iceland more inclusive and sustainable for our environment and communities. To do this, we need both bottom-up as well as top-down planning, effective cooperation - and improved data about the economic, social and environmental effects of tourism, both positive and negative. If these are not systematically measured they do not get enough attention and we risk being left with an unclear idea about the true contribution of tourism to our quality of life, and what needs to be improved.
With its work on SPI and tourism, Costa Rica, with its already progressive environmental policies, is now at the forefront of developing a more socially sensitive tourism model. Costa Rica's initiative in this regard is admirable and something I think we can learn a lot from here in Iceland.
Dear guests, I look forward to hearing more about the meaning of SPI for the development of Costa Rica's tourism and sustainable development in general. I would like to thank the organisers, and our distinguished guests, for contributing to the important discussion about sustainable tourism development in Iceland and around the world. Thank you.