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Tourists are back in Iceland. But so is whale hunting

<i>Matthew Williams-Ellis/VWPCS/AP</i><br/>Whale watching is a popular tourist activity in Iceland.
VWPics via AP Images
Matthew Williams-Ellis/VWPCS/AP
Whale watching is a popular tourist activity in Iceland.

Jenna Gottlieb, CNN

After a four-year hiatus, Iceland’s last remaining whaling company, Hvalur hf., will resume its hunt this summer, much to the chagrin of tourism officials.

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

“It is actually well known and widely reported that the tourism industry believes that whaling hurts Iceland’s image as a tourism destination,” said Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, the executive director of the Icelandic Tourist Board. “All you need do is look at how whaling is reported on in the foreign press.”

“It is often reported in larger publications with heated coverage,” continued Jóhannes. “In the tourism industry, both in private companies and in public polls; in letters, phone calls, and in other communications, whaling has a very precise effect, and tourism companies feel it the moment whaling enters the discussion again.”

Company representatives have expressed outrage over the planned whale hunt. “The tourism industry and most Icelandic citizens are against whaling,” said Ásberg Jónsson, CEO of Travel Connect, a large travel services company based in Reykjavík.

“It’s saddening and frustrating to hear that this company, Hvalur, intends to resume killing these animals in Iceland. It is very damaging to our country’s reputation. This, in turn, has repercussions for our export and tourism industries.”

Stakes are high as tourism in Iceland ground to a halt during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. “We are an island, so obviously the barrier to travel here is a little higher than people visiting a neighboring country,” said Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, the head of Visit Iceland.

Dependence on tourism

While Covid-19 wreaked havoc on nations across the globe, many countries aren’t as dependent on tourism as Iceland. Leading up to the pandemic, tourism was the country’s largest export.

According to data from the Iceland Chamber of Commerce, the sector’s growth 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 bookings, air transport, accommodation and restaurants decreased by 50-75% from 2019. This led to a contraction in 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 typically begins in June and lasts until September. It’s estimated that about 150 people work on the whaling boats in the whaling station in west Iceland and in the company’s processing facilities outside of Reykjavík.

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 hunting should be allowed,” a casual worker at the whaling station, who did not want to be identified because it could affect his employment, told CNN Travel. “It is only around 125-150 fin whales hunted each year in the seven seasons since Iceland started hunting whales again in 2006. That year, I think only eight whales were hunted.”

Negative emails

It’s puzzling to many that Hvalur, which is run by CEO Kristján Loftsson, continues whale hunting in light of the environmental concerns and its poor financials.

“It is difficult for us to understand why, as not only is whale hunting a harmful practice, it’s also no longer a financially viable one,” said Travel Connect’s Ásberg.

Hvalur’s Loftsson disputed the claim that his business was unprofitable, insisting it provided a vital contribution to the Icelandic economy.

“Whaling is viable and will bring income for the people employed and export income for the country,” he said.

Iceland’s whaling activities account for roughly 3% of all whales hunted worldwide, according to a 2019 report from Iceland’s Ministry of Industries and Innovation. In 2017, the total revenue of whale watching companies amounted to 3.2 billion Icelandic króna ($26.5 million). Meanwhile, Hvalur’s revenue from whaling activities in 2017 amounted to 1.7 billion króna ($14.1 million).

However, whale watching tours bring more revenue as it’s a popular activity for tourists year-round.

Many are fed up with the impact of one company, especially as tourism companies are expecting this summer to return to a “pre-Covid” number of tourists, and a controversial issue like whale hunting is disappointing.

“Overall, our travel brands haven’t experienced a lot of cancellations because of this, but every now and then, we receive negative emails about the subject,” said Ásberg. “We always explain that as a company, we do not support whale hunting whatsoever. Everyone should be able to see these incredible creatures thriving in their natural habitat.”

Loftsson, who says whale watching companies as a whole have regularly struggled to return a profit, said that there was no indication hunting impacted on tourism numbers. He said a recent rise in visitors could actually be a result of the resumption of whaling.

He also insists hunting an authorized quota of 161 fin whales will have little consequence in an area he says contains up to 30,000 whales. “So everyone can see that there are plenty of fin whales to be watched in their natural habitat,” he says.

A last hurrah?

The 2022 season could be Hvalur’s last as the current license to hunt whales will expire in 2023, and Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture will then decide whether or not to stop issuing whaling licenses from 2024 onwards. It appears that there is little demand for whaling products and that the industry does very little for Iceland’s economy.

“Any whaling in Icelandic waters is science-based and in accordance with international law,” said Sigríður. “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 for the Icelandic people and government to determine if any future licenses will be granted. In the last three years, only one Minke whale and no large whales have been caught.”

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

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

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with comments from Kristján Loftsson, CEO of Hvalur

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