Hello, Iceland

Iceland is trendy these days. My staff has been nagging me to incorporate it into our program with a guidebook and tours. One of our top researchers and guides, Ian Watson, is raising his family there. And until now I’d never been there.

This year I thought, finally, I’ll extend my trip a few days and stop in Iceland on the way home. I was flying Icelandair, which has famously liberal stopover privileges in Reykjavik — where I had to change planes anyway. I told the Icelandic Tourist Board I had a couple of days for Iceland and challenged them to show me the best of their country. They generously showed me a very good time. While I won’t write a guidebook to Iceland (the Lonely Planet guide is just out and is excellent) and we won’t be incorporating Iceland into our tour program, I had a great visit. I’ll be reporting on my experience in the next few entries.

Tourism is booming in Iceland — up 30 percent this year over its best-ever year for tourism in 2012. They enjoyed well over two tourist visits per resident for the past two years. About half of their tourist economy comes in July and August when the days are long, the weather is pleasant, and people tend to visit. But even on a sunny day during my visit, I layered on everything I had and envied the locals with their woolly ski caps.

While tourism is limited to summer (and always will be, regardless of how enthusiastically the tourist board promotes off-season festivals), other industries roll on. Two big businesses are fishing (obviously) and aluminum production (not so obvious). Using Iceland’s cheap electricity, factories produce aluminum from bauxite, which requires lots of electrical energy, or heat. They can actually ship in the raw material, use their affordable energy to heat it up, and then export the aluminum — and make good money.

Right off the plane, I took a taxi to the hotel and hopped on a whale-watching boat for a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour. We saw plenty of birds and little fish, but no whales. Still, I enjoyed the bracing and fresh North Atlantic wind, grand views, and a good chance to chat with the pilot and get my cultural bearings:

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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