Except for an occasional volcano, Iceland is perhaps one of the best places on the planet to live, work, climb mountains, scale glaciers, ride bikes, and get rid of pesky acne (in the geothermal baths). National pastimes include swimming in one of the 130-heated pools after an 8-mile hike up and down mountains to experience awesome waterfalls, cooling volcanic lava, and endless pollution-free blue sky.
Iceland is wealthy and ranked among the top 10 countries in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. One notable measure used to determine a country’s quality of life is the Human Development Index (HDI) compiled by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The HDI combines several indicators which measure a country’s achievements in three main areas of human development: Longevity, knowledge, education and the economic standard of living. In a recent ranking of 177 countries, the HDI placed Iceland in first place. With a 300,000 population that is extremely homogeneous (mostly descendents of Norwegian and Celtic settlers), residents speak English, Danish, Norwegian or Swedish, making it an excellent destination for a combination of leisure and business adventures.
Financial Wobbles Then Back to Stability
Iceland maintained its high standard of living until the financial collapse in 2008, when external debt reached 550 percent of GDP leaving the country vulnerable to the global financial crises. The miscalculations of bankers and investors precipitated the collapse of Iceland’s three main banks, or 85 percent of the banking system. During this period key asset prices sank, the onshore foreign exchange market dried up and the krona depreciated more than 70 percent in the offshore market.
The government quickly stepped in to restore confidence and stabilized the economy while the IMF (International Monetary Fund) approved a two-year Stand-by-Arrangement (SBA) for US$2.1 billion to support the government’s program. The intervention focused on: preventing further krona depreciation, developing a strategy for bank restructuring, and ensuring medium term fiscal sustainability. The quick resolve of the Iceland government and global financial partners made the recession less severe than expected, and the financial sector has stabilized while fiscal policies have helped to hold up consumption.
Iceland is considered an ideal place to invest because of highly skilled workers, an open and transparent democracy and endless supplies of renewable energy. Geothermal sources are used to drive turbines and create electricity. While many things in Iceland are considered “expensive” (the prices are comparable with major US cities such as New York and Chicago), energy is cheap and over the past 10 years, the price of electricity, compared with a broad measure of inflation, has fallen 75 percent. As a result, the Icelanders use an abundance of energy for their SUVs, electricity to power de-icing systems for driveways and city streets and to heat swimming pools. In 2004 per capita electricity use in Iceland was nearly twice the amount of the US; however, the extravagance does not tax the economy or the environment because of its geothermal sources.
Iceland is Different
Encouraging people to visit Iceland must be one of the easiest jobs ever. With limited crime, a positive business environment, an abundance of geothermal steam to power factories, homes, hotels, and busses, an educated and employed workforce and excellent medical services, Sif Gustavsson, the Area Manager, North America, has a position that other tourism executives must envy.
Educated in New York (Long Island University, Brookville, NY) and the University of Iceland (Reykjavik), Gustavsson brings years of marketing and sales expertise to her new position. Although Iceland has terrific hotels, a reliable public transportation system, and an airline (Icelandair) that encourages travelers to Europe to see Iceland first, Gustavsson does not believe that the cuisine of the destination has received its fair share of applause and is currently working with TV stations and tour operators to promote Tastesational Iceland for visitors who would rather explore the country with a fork and knife rather than a new pair of hiking boots and a walking stick.
Back to Life
In Iceland, nature is the most important segment of the tourist industry. Combine volcanoes, landscapes formed during the Ice Age, and limited industrialization, the landscape is unique to most of the foreign visitors who come from Scandinavia (25.7 percent), Great Britain (16.9 percent), the USA (14.0 percent), and Germany (9.7 percent). In 2006 visitors totaled approximately 400,000, well over the total population of 300,000.
Visitors to Iceland planning to spend less than 90 days do not need a visa; however, a passport with at least three months available prior to departure is required. At immigration, travelers may be asked to show sufficient funds for their holiday and a return airline ticket.
According to the US State Advisories, petty crimes against Americans have been recorded, and travelers are encouraged to keep a watchful eye on luggage, cameras, and electronics. Valuables should not be left in unattended cars, even if they are locked.
The good news is there is an abundance of natural attractions including glaciers, volcanic craters, ice caves, hot springs, boiling mud pots, geysers, waterfalls and glacial rivers to explore. The bad news: there are very few warning signs or barriers providing a heads-up for potential harm.
According to the US State Department, many tourists are scalded each year because they strolled too close to an erupting geyser or stepped too eagerly into a hot spring or boiling mud pot. High winds and icy conditions increase the opportunity for accidents to occur. Because weather conditions change very quickly, backpackers/hikers should stick to established paths, travel with a buddy, and leave a copy of the itinerary with a local friend or relative. To insure safety, travelers are encouraged to work with local guides as they explore the more remote areas of the country.
Icelandic law prohibits discrimination of people based on disabilities so public accommodations, buildings and elevators are accessible. Most museums, and shopping centers located in the capital of Reykjavik are barrier – free and the public bus system and taxis have transport available for people with disabilities. As open as the country is, there are still areas that are not accessible – so it is best to check in advance of travel to determine the current situation.
While the health care system is very modern, nonresidents are expected to pay their own medical costs and to close the bill in full before leaving the hospital or clinic. Travelers should never assume that their home/office based insurance will cover emergencies that occur outside their own country. It is advisable to check with personal insurance carriers to determine limitations on current policies and supplement the plan based on activities and current medical conditions.
Less than one-third of Iceland roads are paved and many roads outside the capital are gravel or dirt tracks. Even paved roads can be narrow and lack a shoulder or margin. Bridges may be only one lane wide, requiring drivers to be alert to oncoming traffic. Because of snow melt and other weather-related conditions, there may be times when roads are impassable. Before driving outside the capital, an itinerary should be left with hotel security or friends, and the Public Roads Administration contacted for updated information (1777).
Iceland is an interesting destination that is best experienced from the top – down. Go out and buy a pair of hiking boots and walking sticks, check out the latest fashions for outdoor adventures, stow your all-weather gear in a back-pack, contact a local hiking / adventure tour operator, and put the destination at the top of the “to do” list for a spring/summer holiday.
For additional information on Iceland: www.visiticeland.com .