Published January 9, 2009
Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson:
Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson is a journalist and respected travel writer. He has written many popular guidebooks on travel in Iceland, often featuring an emphasis on “the roads less travelled”.
Svanhildur Konráðsdóttir is director of cultural affairs and tourism for the city of Reykjavík and chairman of the Icelandic Tourist Board. She has been active in promoting tourism in Iceland for several years and has overseen a plethora of successful projects to that end.
Halldóra Mogensen directs the Icelandic Travel Market tourist information centre in downtown Reykjavík. At her station, she doles out expert advice to tourists and visitors to Iceland on how to best conduct their stay for an optimally satisfying experience.
Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson [Continuing an un-recorded discussion about the travel books he’s written, all of which are in Icelandic]: The fact of the matter is that the only guidebook on Iceland that is actually written by an Icelander is the road reference guide. You can find dozens or hundreds of foreign language books about Iceland, but none of them are written locally. The locals have their own books, in Icelandic, that more often than not feature vastly different information than the ones written by visitors.
Svanhildur Konráðsdóttir: This is definitely true. Local-made magazine’s and web sites pass on some good information, but unfortunately many of the international guidebooks on Iceland just promote the same clichés, and maintain them by constant repetition.
Halldóra Mogensen: I have found this to be a problem when directing people around. There seems to be a lack of books and brochures about, say, specific walking routes that people can travel on their own over the summer. I get a lot of backpackers over the summer that just want to take a bus somewhere and wander off on walks without a guide, we can’t really refer them to anything.
PÁÁ: They are often so generally written, as they want to tell you “everything about Iceland” in a few pages, so they don’t get into necessary specifics. Lonely Planet covers all of Iceland in 2250 pages, give or take. In any case, the majority of the tourists we get are lured here by nature.
SK: Yes, nature, but many of them also wish to have cultural or entertainment based experiences. These are the three factors that people seek out here, again and again. And it is true that more informational materials are being published lately, to serve that crowd, but I still feel we need a better selection of directions about a lot of the hidden – or not so obvious – parts of the city and the country. Reykjavík isn’t confined to Laugavegur and Austurstræti, for instance. There is a lot more to experience here.
PÁÁ: The Reykjavík Ghost Walk is a good one… you know, there is an idea out there, just waiting for some entrepreneur to execute it: “The prosperity tour of Reykjavík”, a sort of little shop of horrors where people see and learn about the major players in the financial collapse. I’d buy that if I were a tourist here.
HM: A lot of Brits lately at the information centre saying they came here by chance, they stumbled upon Reykjavík when they were looking for a cheap place to travel to.
SK: Most of the people that visit the Reykjavík Information Centre say that they’ve always wanted to visit but could never afford to until now. But I think Iceland becoming a mass tourist spur of the moment destination is still thankfully a far cry away.
PÁÁ: They say one of the positive effects of the collapse is that Iceland will be more affordable for tourists, due to a “better” exchange rate. But this is a fallacy, as this is a temporary condition, and our tourist markets are also being hurt by recession. There is nothing in these people’s immediate futures that suggests they will afford taking trips abroad over us.
SK: The outlook for global tourism is rather bleak. The tourism industry has been growing for years, and for the first time in a long time they are now projecting a downturn. All over, nations and cities are reacting to these forecasts by increasing their marketing, building infrastructure and making themselves more attractive as destinations. It is a misconception that the Icelandic tourism industry can sit back and enjoy an influx of wealthy travellers.
PÁÁ: I believe one of the effects of the global recession will be that down-to-earth travel will once more become fashionable. Lonely Planet made that mode of travel in back in the day; they were originally called “On a shoestring”. But the publisher is now an institution in itself and is an overtly large force in today’s tourism. Developing countries are ripe with “Lonely Planet recommends” stickers, and everyone is once more going to the same places. At the same time, the group that doesn’t wish to use guides is growing. People all over the world are looking for a personal experience on their travels; they want an authentic experience that’s closer to the grassroots than traditional tourism will ever be. The buses are being depopulated, while hitchhiking is becoming more popular.
Most of the foreigners I meet while travelling Iceland during summer, on mountaintops, say the same thing: “this is a beautiful country and the nature is magnificent, but it would have been nice to meet some locals. I think a lot of people leave here feeling they never got to know Icelanders. In the rare occasion that I am able to bring visitors to someone’s farm or home, they are unbelievably grateful.
SK: This is a huge growth industry. People are turning on to local things, to authentic grassroots things. Not a showcase, but the real thing. To meet the farmer, dine his produce at his table or meet the artist in his or her studio.
HM: Still, almost every tourist we meet at the information centre has three objectives: Gullfoss, Geysir and the Blue Lagoon – that’s it. And then they ask us what more there is to do. Most of the people we meet don’t have a clue on what they want to do.
SK: The big issue in Icelandic tourism and travel at the moment is quality control. Increasing the quality of our locations and services, and preserving what’s already there. We may need to control the number of people visiting certain attractions, for them to maintain their attractiveness and unspoilt reputation. A steady stream of people will inevitably affect these attractions; we might see our most popular destinations lose their charm if we don’t show foresight and care. We also need to develop new attractions.
HM: And that’s what Iceland is supposed to be about. Wilderness. Where you’re one with nature, alone with it. With twelve buses a day and six jeeps, the experience is definitely less private.
PÁÁ: Maintaining these destinations with a proper care should definitely be a priority for those responsible. We have almost reached the limits of what the land can take.
SK: We need to keep this in mind, all of us involved with tourism and travel in Iceland, even the tourists themselves. However, I believe the fastest growing attraction in Icelandic tourism right now is based on our culinary and cultural life. Music, food and culture play an increased role in tourism here; people visit Reykjavík for concerts, for the latest design, for Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower, to dine at our best restaurants. We measured Iceland Airwaves three years ago and learned that even though its audience is for the most part young and low on disposable income, they still contributed 300 million ISK plus change directly to the downtown economy. Even though our economy might be in a dramatic downturn, our cultural life is extremely healthy and attracting more attention, and thus visitors, by the month. This is why we need to put an emphasis on finishing the concert and convention hall.
- Where? Kaffi Hressó, december 22
- The Mood: Rather cheerful