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PHIL HARDWICK — Reflections on five days in Iceland

PHIL HARDWICK

Our plane landed on schedule at Iceland’s modern Keflavik International Airport. It was in early afternoon on a midsummer’s day. The weather was cloudy; the temperature in the upper 50’s. Unlike most countries my wife and I have visited there was no customs check-in. We simply picked up or bags and caught our pre-arranged bus to downtown Reykjavik, which is some 39 miles away. We had arrived at a place that has become the darling of international travel. Because of Iceland’s current image as a travel destination my wife and I tacked it on to a recent international trip. What we found was a fascinating landscape, a rapidly evolving capital city, friendly people and expensive food and lodging. Let’s begin with some background information about the country.

Iceland is hot.

Its economy is on the upswing, tourism is increasing, population is growing and its people are happy. All these changes are combining to change the perception of the country and to make it the latest “in” place to visit. And of course, being a volcanic island it is also literally hot.

Nevertheless, all things are not rosy. There is some worry that the economy is overheating and that there is a doctor shortage. Also, being a small country, it is subject to a lot of volatility in more ways than one. Consequently, a concern 10 years ago may not be a concern today, and vice-versa. When doing Internet research, it is wise to look at the date of the article.

Iceland’s economy is growing. Its current Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is $24 billion, up 7.5% over 2016. That was helped by low oil prices and high fish prices in international markets. By contrast, Mississippi’s 2017 GDP was $96.82 billion. Tourism has taken over seafood as the major driver of Iceland’s economy. One estimate has it contributing to just over 50% of GDP growth. Visitors spent a total of $4.68 billion on accommodations, tours, meals, and transportation associated with domestic travel in 2017. According to the Icelandic Tourism Board, in 2010 the number of visitors was 488,600. In 2016, that climbed to 1,792,000, which is an annual growth rate during that period of 24.4%.

Iceland’s population grew by 10,101 in 2017, according to a new report from Statistics Iceland. The total population on January 1st, 2018 was 348,450, a 3.0 % increase from the previous year. The highest rate of population growth was in the Reykjavik peninsula, which grew by 1,777 people or 7.4 %. The Reykjavík capital region experienced a population growth of 2.6 % (5,606 persons). No regions of the country experienced population decline.

Now that I’ve set the stage, allow me to share a bit of travelogue from that recent visit to Iceland. Some things you need to know before heading o to Iceland. First, you will most certainly land in Keflavik Airport. Transportation to downtown varies widely. Costs can range from free hotel shuttle to $120 for a taxi. We took the Flybus for $48, and it took us to within a block and a half from the AirBnb apartment we rented. Decent hotels run from $200 and up per night. Restaurants are also expensive. Expect to pay $30 and up for a meal. A beer will cost you around $10.

When taking my first shower in our apartment I noticed a slightly funny smell when I turned on the hot water faucet. Sort of like a sulfuric odor. Turns out that the hot water is provided by geothermal heating, which meets the requirements of 87 % of all buildings in Iceland. It also has a slight amount of hydrogen sulfide. But don’t worry, a person does not smell like sulfur after taking a shower or bath.

The cold water faucet is a different story. It supplies cold water, which is among the coldest and purest in the world. No need to buy bottled water in Iceland.

Without a doubt, every visitor to Iceland should take what is known as the Golden Circle Tour, which is a 190 mile route to three or four of the most unique places on the planet. My favorite three were Thingvellir National Park, Gulfoss waterfall and the Geyser geothermal area. We took the day-long tour in a minibus with eight other people. Cost was $88 per person.

Thingvellir National Park is the place where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are drifting apart at an average of one inch per year. Absolutely fascinating. Expect to see lots of tourists and sightseers there and all the other Golden Circle stops. Nearby is the largest lake in Iceland. Also nearby is the site of the first national parliament of Iceland, which was established at the site in 930 AD, making it the oldest Parliament in the world.

There are over 10,000 waterfalls in Iceland, but Gullfoss is probably the most famous because of its beauty, power and accessibility. It is fed by Iceland´s second biggest glacier, the Langjökull.

The Geysir geothermal area is where one can hear the bubbling of the mud pots, smell the sulfur in the air and watch in awe as the geyser Strokkur blasts boiling water into the air.

Many Golden Circle tour operators also include the famous Blue Lagoon or the Secret Lagoon.

What I have described is in the southern part of Iceland. The northern part is where the landscape is so rugged and glacial that is the scene of many movies that depict other worlds. The Star Wars Sagas and HBO’s Game of Thrones are among many movies and television shows that have been filmed in Iceland.

I could go on, but I’m out of space. I’ll close with what I suspect is a misconception about Iceland. The other day I heard someone say that businesses were moving out of Iceland, that taxes were high and that it was so depressing there that it had the highest suicide rate in the world. Only one of those comments is true. Taxes are high. With an income tax of around 35 % and a value added tax of 15 % on many goods, the rate could get to 50 %. However, there is free medical care and free education, among other things. Now about that suicide rate. Iceland’s suicide rate comes in at number 65 on the World Health Organization rankings, while the United States ranks 48th.

Finally, the 2017 U.N. World Happiness Report ranks Iceland as the fourth happiest country in the world, and the 2018 Global Peace Index ranks Iceland as the most peaceful country in the world, a position it has held since 2008.

» PHIL HARDWICK is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist. His email address is phil@philhardwick.com.

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