To generalise: Icelanders are a greedy bunch. After we escaped from the claws of Danish colonialist rule, the national imperative has been to make as much money as possible. You can say money makes Iceland turn, even though the Mickey Mouse money we call “the Icelandic króna” hardly qualifies as a currency. I guess we’re no different than any other Western country then.
Savvy Icelanders have always been adept at finding their golden eggs. First, the nation got rich by working for the UK and US militaries who looked after us through the Second World War. You could say that Iceland came jumping out of the third world during the war. Plainly: it made us rich. When that was over, a lot of herring came swimming by, and we sought to kill and sell all of it, constructing herring processing plants all over the country. Those currently stand empty, looking all cool and mysterious. Hard work used to be considered a virtue; the people working during the herring boom would sometimes fall asleep standing on the “salting harbour,” only to wake up a few minutes later to start anew. When I speak to my dad (who is 88 years old) about this, he kind of brags about all the sixteen-hour workdays he put in—“It wasn’t so difficult, I did it often,” he’ll say. Meanwhile, my mother (who is 86) starts every conversation by asking, “What are you working on now?” She doesn’t quite get this crazy freelance business I am in, so I get all defensive and usually snap at her. They are from a different generation, you see. “The hard-working generation.”
Get rich, hurry!
While Icelanders once considered working hard a virtue, getting rich quick has always been our main goal. After the herring “adventure,” many more booms (and subsequent busts) have followed. At one time, everybody though breeding mink for their fur was the thing. The reef was quickly filled up with mink farms. A little after that, harnessing waterfalls for electricity became the main obsession.
And now, it’s the tourist business. You foreign visitors reading this are our new herring and mink and waterfalls. Swank hotels are the new mink farms, the new herring plants. We’re currently right in the middle of a tourist boom, and a lot of folks are already starting to worry. Will this end with an inevitable bummer? Will all those hotels stand empty in a few years’ time, when the tourists come to their senses and stop hanging out in Iceland?
People are also getting kind of tired of the tourists. They are all around and there’s so many of them. The foreign people are “trampling on our grounds” and Icelanders now even have to queue up for their pylsa and putrid shark. Some say that we should switch our focus to “rich tourists”—harvesting golden eggs from a few really fat geese instead of a bunch of scrawny ones that—gosh!—even bring their own food. To this, I say: why don’t we concentrate on just getting ONE tourist, the richest man on the planet, to spend all his money here? Is that too farfetched?
Before the gold rush
I remember Iceland before the tourist boom, when the only visitors were a few Germans with a geology fetish. On any given day there was hardly anyone to be seen on the streets of Reykjavík. You could have them all to yourself. Even though I am an introvert, I think more people equals more fun—even though I might have to wait in line for my pylsa. On the other hand, delicate landscapes should be protected, we shouldn’t allow them to be trampled down by a massive onslaught of foreign visitors.
I thus welcome the tourist swarm. I think foreign people—usually really weird ones if they come here in the first place (and weird is good)—make living in Iceland more fun. We have so many more nice restaurants than before, and more successful concerts. Wonderful things like Iceland Airwaves and ATP festivals are able to happen because of tourism. And that’s great.
I went to Gullfoss and Geysir this summer. Both places were packed with people, most of them foreign. It felt a bit like some random tourist trap. So what—the waterfall is still as great, and getting soaked by Strokkur’s gush is just as much fun as it ever was.
This summer I have seen way more hitchhikers than ever before. I drove a young couple from France to the airport. It made my ride a lot more fun. They were saving every penny, and didn’t even go to the Blue Lagoon—or “Satan’s Mudpit,” as I like to call it. They were subjected to pouring rain for the entire duration of their stay, but still liked the experience, I think (they hardly spoke English). When I went hiking up Kaldbakur, the Westfjords’ highest peak (at 998 metres), I encountered a French biology teacher who was hitching a ride. My group took her in, and she made the hike with us. The trip was more fun. I got to practise my French, she gave us exotic nuts and fruits she had brought along, and we had someone to snap a picture of us at the top.
So by all means, my fellow Icelanders, just chill out with the tourists. There are still many places you can go to if you want to experience the “good old times” of hardly seeing anyone on the streets.
May I suggest Þorlákshöfn if you want to be alone with your thoughts?
Dr. Gunni is a writer and pop historian. He most recently authored ‘Blue Eyed Pop—The History Of Popular Music In Iceland.’
Read an excerpt and an interview with the author here.
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