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How cheap flights and a clever layover strategy led to Iceland's booming tourism industry

Everyone knows the best way to get to know a place is to ask a local. And now Icelandair is giving you the opportunity to do just that. This winter, the airline will provide some travelers with a Stopover Buddy if they choose to spend time in Iceland between flights.

It's the latest step in a strategy by Icelandair that has transformed the country's economy since the 1960s to make it heavily reliant on tourism.

Icelandair already offers a free stopover for up to seven nights in Iceland as a perk. It's now promoting a more personal service: Icelandair employees will show you around their country for a day. The only requirement, according to the airline's website, is "a decent amount of curiosity and courage."

The program runs from February 2 through April 30. It's not clear how many Stopover Buddies are available — but probably not enough for the 5.5 million people, including 390,000 Americans, who stayed overnight in Iceland in 2014. The airline says the program is first come, first served, although it offers an "e-Buddy program," with recommendations and discounts, as a consolation prize for those who miss out.

Meet your food Stopover Buddies.

Since the program launched fairly recently, more people are talking about how excited they are for this program than have actually taken advantage of it. One woman tweeted that she will be spending the weekend cycling with Siggi, the website manager of Icelandair.

This isn't the first time the company has had this idea. In 2014, Icelandair made a few promotional videos featuring surprise stopover adventures for unsuspecting travelers.

The videos are filled with scenes of gorgeous waterfalls, strawberry picking, and a local music festival. "This experience being here in Iceland has changed me and reminded me of what's important," says Kat, one of the featured travelers.

A booming tourism industry

Around 997,000 visitors traveled to Iceland in 2014. And tourism brings in more foreign exchange income than the fisheries industry and aluminum production, according to the country's tourism board.

Why has tourism in Iceland seen such huge growth? Icelandair's marketing and communications coordinator, Michael Raucheisen, says there are a few reasons. The financial collapse of 2008, he explains in an email to us, brought more attention to the country and made it a more affordable destination. The infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruptions in the spring of 2010, and more prominence in movies and television, also brought Iceland to the attention of a larger audience.

(YouTube)

And there's another big reason Iceland has become popular: location.

Location, location, location

The travel website Lonely Planet's tips for having a budget break in Iceland include choosing a flight that allows a free stopover in Iceland if you're traveling between North America and Europe.

So how exactly does this stopover business model work? Two words: hub and spoke. Because Iceland is located about halfway between North America and Europe, airlines can offer short and convenient flights to a large number of destinations. Both Icelandair and low-cost airline WOW Air attract customers with lower airfares and stopover days at no additional cost.

Icelandair has taken advantage of this to promote tourism since the 1960s. Founded in 1944, the company began attracting passengers by offering low fares starting in 1955. The travel experience back then was far from fabulous, with old planes and packed cabins, but the food was excellent, according to the New York Times.

And Icelandair's hospitality extends beyond airplanes. The airline owns 22 hotels in Iceland. Lilit Marcus writes in Condé Nast Traveler that this strategy is not only smart marketing, but fun and creative, too.

Ed Perkins, a Chicago Tribune travel columnist, explains that there are only a select numbers of US cities that offer direct flights to some of the smaller European cities. And if you have to deal with a stopover, he writes in his column, smaller airports are usually a better experience.

If you're up for an adventure detour, the Stopover Buddy program is a perfectly designed win-win. Icelanders get to show off their beautiful country, and visitors get an off-the-beaten-path experience.

The coolest Stopover buddy adventure Raucheisen's heard of so far? A trip up north with Icelandair's CEO, Birkir Hólm Gudnason.

"He plans to show his home town of Akureyri and go backcountry skiing in the beautiful northern part of the country. That's a trip to Iceland you would never forget!"

(h/t Mashable)

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