Iceland

Submitted by: Roger Bardsley, AICP

By now, those of you who read the APA_NC blog section may say this looks like another of Roger’s travelblogs, and that would be correct.  We can learn a lot about what works and what does not work by looking at other communities and countries.  They conduct the experiments and we can benefit from their experiences.  So, this blog is about Iceland.

By now, you have probably been to Iceland or know someone who has been there.  Icelandair offers a free stopover of up to seven days on your way to wherever Icelandair flies.  That is a nice offer, but the Icelandair fares are also much cheaper than most other carriers, so the offer is particularly attractive right now.  We were headed to Zurich for a wedding in Switzerland and used Icelandair primarily because they were less expensive, but decided to spend six days there because the opportunity presented itself.  I learned so much in six days that I have had trouble processing it all, but here are the highlights:

  • Be careful what you wish for: Iceland was nearly bankrupt in 2009, primarily because of some risky investments.  They decided to use tourism to bring the economy back, and it has worked extremely well.  Tourism has increased 20% year-over-year for several years and has the Icelanders wondering when it will stop.  The attached picture shows a double-size addition to a hotel at the Keflavik airport.  That is typical – hotels throughout the country are adding rooms.  We stayed in the small town of Höfn on the south coast and ate in a great seafood restaurant.  The restaurant was started in 2012 in a two-story 1932 warehouse.  The warehouse was built from driftwood and material from old houses, which of course is very cool.  The point is that it is full every night – with up to five tour buses plus the tourists in their rental cars.
  • Iceland generates all of its electricity from renewable resources – 30% from geothermal energy and 70% from hydroelectric energy. We visited one of four geothermal plants serving Reykjavik.  Superheated steam comes out of the ground and turns seven turbines that generate 300 M of electricity.  Hot water, a byproduct of the steam extraction, is used, through thermal transfer, to heat clean water and piped to Reykjavik.  There it is used for district heating, hot water in homes and businesses, and for public swimming pools.
  • Eight percent of Iceland is covered by glaciers, cap ice rather than mountain glaciers familiar to most Americans. The cap ice sends its excess downhill along river valleys where it either melts or drops into the ocean, forming icebergs.  A local guide said that the cap is getting thinner and that the outflow tongues are “running back up the mountain.”  It was a first-person testimonial to climate change.
  • Iceland’s history was first written in the 12th century and it stated that the country was founded in 874 by several Vikings from what is now Norway. There were no natives living on the island, although there is evidence that a few Celtic monks may have arrived earlier.  In any event, the country was completely settled within a few generations.  The inhabitants fished, farmed and raised sheep and horses.

  • To return to my first observation, Iceland has about 338,000 inhabitants, 60% of whom live in Reykjavik. In 2016 it was estimated that 330,000 Americans visited Iceland, with many more from other countries.  My guess when we were in Reykjavik is that 60% of the people on the street were Americans, 30% were British, and the rest were from other countries.  Once on the road to the hot springs, waterfalls and other scenic places we did encounter tour buses full of Asians, primarily Japanese.  During high season it is likely that there are more tourists of all nationalities in Iceland than there are locals.  The closest analogy I can make is to the High Point Furniture Market, times three, seven days a week for months on end.

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