How Travel Destinations Become Tourist Hot Spots


Scroll through your Facebook, Instagram or Twitter feed and it’s likely that you’ll come across photographs of someone’s recent trip to Iceland. They’re easy to spot: images of the Skógafoss waterfall in the southern part of the country, tourists taking a dip in the Seljavallalaug swimming pool near the coast, the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa and colorful row homes throughout the country’s capital city, Reykjavík. It seems like everyone is heading to the small Nordic island nation for an adventurous vacation, and the truth is, they are.

In 2016, American tourists visiting Iceland outnumbered the country’s total population of around 332,000. And those are just tourists from one country. In total, Iceland played host to 1.7 million visitors last year. 

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The night sky over the Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland.

“[We have seen a] 26 percent year-over-year increase in off-season tourism in Iceland for the last five years and have seen a massive shift in perceptions towards Iceland as a winter destination. Interest in coming to Iceland during winter has increased by 59 percent on average in key markets in only three years,” says Gunnar Sigurðarson, PR manager at Promote Iceland.

As millennials become the generation with the largest discretionary income, the ways in which travel destinations become popular will shift, specifically with a focus on sustainable travel and experience-related travel.

The tourism boom can be traced back to a literal bang, when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in April of 2010, grounding European airlines for a week and essentially making Iceland all anyone could talk about. When early projections showed a decrease in expected tourism for that following summer, the country’s government and tourism board had an idea: they launched Inspired by Iceland, a campaign focused on rebranding the country. Today, the campaign has branched out into a series of videos called the Iceland Academy, narrated by Icelandic citizens. The videos’ purpose is to teach tourists “the most essential things you need to know before visiting Iceland. What to wear, how to drive, how to take the perfect selfie,” explains the site.

“Since 2010, the Icelandic tourism sector has grown steadily, to the point where it is now the main export industry in Iceland. Tourism has played a crucial role in the recovery of the Icelandic economy following the 2008 recession, and it continues to play a vital part in the creation of jobs and new opportunities for Icelanders,” says Sigurðarson.

In 2012, Iceland-based WOW Air started offering reduced flight prices from Europe to Iceland in an effort to compete with the country’s most popular longtime carrier, Icelandair, and their famous stopover program (the company has been offering tourists a few free days in Iceland as an extended layover for decades). Today, as the budget airline continues to increase its plane count and opens hubs in cities around the globe, flight prices to Iceland have reached an unthinkable low: U.S. tourists can fly from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to Iceland for as low as $99.

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Mexico City is also experiencing a surge in visitors. It was named the number one travel destination in 2016. 

This type of tourism boom isn’t isolated to Iceland. Mexico City is experiencing a surge in visitors, thanks in part to The New York Times declaring the city its number one travel destination for 2016, and a weaker peso against the neighboring dollar. For Portugal and its capital city Lisbon, the European debt crisis—while devastating to the tiny country—helped the tourism industry flourish by keeping prices low, making flying and staying there cheaper than traveling to surrounding countries. In 2016, there was a 22 percent increase in travel from the U.S. and, as a result, more than 40 new hotel openings throughout the year. Travel + Leisure named Portugal its top destination of 2016, cementing the country’s status as a tourist hot spot.

It’s no surprise that as millennials become the generation with the largest discretionary income, the ways in which travel destinations become popular will shift, specifically with a focus on sustainable travel and experience-related travel. So while Iceland is the coolest spot of the moment, destinations as far flung as Belgrade, Serbia, and Baku, Azerbaijan, could be next, thanks to an emerging arts scene and a depreciated local currency, respectively.

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