Published October 3, 2014
A couple of weeks ago I was hiking on a trail about 90 minutes from my home in Portland, Oregon, USA. I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for a year. I asked her what she’d been up to.
“Oh, I just got back from Iceland,” she said.
“Really? I’m going Wednesday.”
Is the whole world going to Iceland? Apparently so, I learned when I picked up the recent tourism issue of the Reykjavík Grapevine. And I’m not sure I should tell you this, since that issue pointed out the not entirely positive effects of tourism, but a lot more people are coming. Thanks, in part, to the Society of American Travel Writers. I’m a member of this organization and we just finished up a week-long convention in Reykjavík.
The SATW is composed of travel writers, photographers and travel PR people from around the US and Canada. Every year the convention is held in a different city. When the idea of meeting in Iceland first came up, an SATW member contacted a friend of a friend who works in Iceland tourism. He answered immediately, recalled Lynn Rosen, this year’s conference chair. “This organization has a reputation,” she said. “So he was eager to open the door to the possibility.”
And the members were thrilled to come to Iceland, even though it cost them much more than when the organization meets domestically. “Many of us would have moved heaven and earth to get here,” Rosen said. “Then we get here to find heaven and earth moving.”
We’ve all been polishing our volcano witticisms this week.
So what does it mean to have 354 travel writers and tourism promoters descend on a city? With most of them constantly posting news and photos of their exploits to their thousands of followers on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/et cetera, Iceland gets even more exposure. During a cocktail party at Perlan, SATW member Rich Grant, communications director of Visit Denver, mused about the two or three travel writers left behind in the US who were living vicariously through our Facebook posts. “By now, everybody is so sick of Iceland,” he said. “Yet they’re addicted. They have to see what happens next. Plus, they’re jealous because it’s so amazing. Right now, Iceland is the hottest place on the planet.”
Despite the skeptical perspectives I read in the Grapevine’s tourism issue, our convention, like any successful PR event, was 100 percent rah rah rah. If I hadn’t picked up the Grapevine, I would have remained ignorant that Icelanders’ love for us might be less than pure.
A pain in the ass
Travel writers and PR people are a pain in the ass to host. Let me be clear, that’s my assessment, not anything our mostly gracious Icelandic hosts said aloud. At least, not in English. I talked to a rep from Iceland Travel as she tried to herd us onto buses. They’ve hosted larger groups, she said, but none with tougher logistics. We complicated things by requesting sixteen pre and post-convention tour options, plus another twenty assorted half-day and full-day tours from Reykjavík. Our tours ranged from the ultra-touristy Blue Lagoon to a fashion tour to meet local designers. We could choose an ecotour of a geothermal plant—not so popular—or to ride ATVs on lava—very popular. Some writers flew in early to do their own thing, some photographers rented a helicopter or an Icelandic horse. While the Hilton was conference headquarters, many of us stayed at the Hotel Marina or Natura, and needed buses to shuttle us between events.
I’m sure we all wanted to be perfect guests. But we face the problem of all travelers: To a greater or lesser degree, we bring our home culture’s expectations with us. It’s only when I leave my country that I realize how American I am.
On a three-night pre-conference tour of the Golden Circle, our activities included rafting, biking and snorkeling in Silfra. Now, there’s not a nice way to put this: Some of us are wimpier than the locals. Snorkeling in 38°F (or 3°C) water on a cold, windy day sounded reasonable in theory. But two minutes after I struggled into my drysuit, hood, boots, mask, and fins and waddled into the lake, my face and hands threatened to fall off. Post-snorkeling, my hands refusing to function, our tour bus driver shook his head in bewilderment as he helped me undress.
Fish out of water
Then there’s the American mania for knowing what’s going to happen next. We wanted details about what time the bus was leaving, where we were going to eat and what we should wear. These all sound like reasonable questions to me. But the more we asked, the more our Icelandic guide resisted answering. Maybe he didn’t know the answers and didn’t want to admit it. Perhaps we were annoying him within an inch of his life. “I feel like telling you to shut up,” he finally told one persistently questioning writer.
Are Americans more schedule-obsessed than other people? Yes, a Canadian SATW member assured me. She’s led tours of people from many countries, and Americans ask her approximately 100 times more questions than anyone else.
But American uptightness about timetables pales in comparison to public pool insecurities. Your average group of Americans does not yearn to strip and shower together. At Laugarvatn Fontana, most of our group thoroughly enraged/grossed out locals by ignoring signs instructing us to shower before entering the pool. Nor do American men love the Blue Lagoon locker room experience. My seatmate on the bus back to the hotel, a writer from Southern California, insisted he couldn’t possibly be clean after bathing in a public pool and then showering with a crush of naked men peacocking around him. Back at the hotel, he took a post-shower shower.
So get ready, Iceland. I know many of you pride yourself on your pure culture—pure Icelandic horses and sheep, pure Icelandic people. But thanks to your new admirers in the SATW who will write dozens of articles about your fashion, music, ATVs and Blue Lagoon—and maybe even one article about geothermal power—soon our numbers will multiply. We’ll be the ones oohing and ahing over your landscape, spending money, shirking hygiene, asking too many questions, falling in love with you and your country and remaining completely oblivious to the fact that our affection may be unrequited.