Magnús Sveinn Helgason, economic historian, Walk the Crash tour guide and contributor to the government’s official inquiry into the economic collapse of 2008
People like to say Icelanders are the strongest, smartest, most beautiful people in the world – based on successes in global Strongman contests, Nobel prizes and Miss World titles. We think very highly of ourselves, in the nicest possible way.
We are a strange lot, and proud of it. We used to resemble eastern Europe more than Scandinavia or western Europe, right up to the end of the 1980s. There was a lot of political meddling and profit was seen as a dirty word before shares started being traded; it meant prices were too high or wages too low. But attitudes had changed by the end of the 1990s.
Until the 1980s there was no TV on a Thursday because the government thought people should be doing something other than watching TV at least once a week; and for the same reason in the summer there were no broadcasts at all in July.
We had other quirky laws. Dogs were not allowed in Reykjavik, where two-thirds of the population live, because they were filthy farm animals. And can you believe there was no beer till 1989?
We have no McDonald’s – they left town after the crash – no Starbucks, no casino, no motorway and no army. Until as recently as 2000 there was virtually no tourism. And there was no word for “corporate raid”. As that caused so much of our trouble I invented one and it has been accepted into the language: fyrirtækjagripdeildir.
There’s plenty of good news around now – about nature, culture, and football.
The tourism executive
Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir, director at Promote Iceland
After Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 we had our largest marketing campaign ever, involving municipalities, hotels – everybody involved in tourism. Looking back, the volcano really put us on the map. There was no real focus on tourism before it happened.
Since then growth has been huge, and we expect an increase of 20-30% this year, about 1.5 million visitors for the year. Ordinary Icelanders get involved in our social media campaign, posting messages, inviting people to their homes – about a third of the population is involved.
There has been a huge increase in Airbnb, and the transatlantic stopovers have been very popular, especially for Americans (passengers can stay in Iceland for up to a week at no additional airfare).
Our focus is on responsible tourism and our target is the “enlightened tourist”, somebody who lives in an urban area and knows a lot about the destinations they travel to. They are likely to travel off season, and to use social media. We are more careful with the cruise market; the average age of tourists on cruises has gone down but they are not in our target group.
We’re really excited about the football – we’ve never been involved in anything like this before and it’s amazing (Iceland will be appearing at their first major international football tournament at Euro 2016). It’s a chance to promote Iceland more and we will have activities going on in Paris.
How do we sell Iceland in the freezing winter? I would highlight the geothermal pools – we have 170 of them. You can see the northern lights, you can see forever, there are no trees – it’s a beautiful landscape that you won’t find anywhere else.
‘It’s a great time to be a tourist here’: Iceland prepares for sporting glory
Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson, author of five novels, all translated into English, and executive vice-president of Time Warner in New York
I played football from the age of four or five in the back yards of Reykjavik. There wasn’t a patch of ground or an alleyway where we didn’t play. I still play now (aged 52) three times a week indoors, four on four. It saves me a trip to the shrink.
Despite my work and my writing, my wife will tell you that soccer comes first. I am hoping to be in France to watch a couple of the Iceland games with my sons.
There are some similarities between Leicester City and the Iceland national team, and not just because the populations are similar. The teamwork, the togetherness.
Sports clubs play a really important role in the community throughout the country, in summer and winter. It’s a place for kids to get together.
It’s not exactly nationalistic but you always know where your roots are. I experience it myself – I have lived in the US for more than 30 years but I still have a home in Iceland and still consider myself Icelandic.
We also have what I would call a healthy attitude about fame. In general most people are pleased when our people succeed overseas but we treat them as normal human beings and they don’t get the sort of special treatment they might have in other countries.
I know foreign celebrities through my job, and they like to go to Iceland because people leave them alone. There’s no paparazzi.
When I first came to the US nobody knew anything about Iceland or where it was. Now I get an email every week from somebody who’s going over there. They say to me: “You’ve got a symphony orchestra, opera, theatre, a vibrant music scene, you publish more books per capita than any other country – it’s amazing.” Iceland might be small, but you still have to function as a society.
The political commentator
Egill Helgason, columnist, blogger, TV host
Iceland is being written about a lot. Condé Nast the other day had the 15 most beautiful waterfalls chosen by their readers and three of them were in Iceland.
The British interest in Iceland is very recent and the sudden growth in tourism has led to lots of property being bought for tourism rental. House prices have become absurd.
In houses all over Reykjavik you have the rattle of suitcases on wheels every morning. We do not have enough hotel rooms. You see cranes all over Reykjavik and all of them are for new hotels.
Some think this is a bubble but I think it’s something that will last. The world has discovered Iceland. You get into a car and within 15 minutes you are in wild nature. No country in Europe can offer that. As soon as you drive from the airport you’re in a lava field; it looks like the moon.
The government is doing very little, they’re just happy to sit and count the money. They need to do something – maybe charge tourists more tax – and we need to spread out visits to other areas where tourists are not going but which are just as spectacular.
Tourism is just a desk in the Ministry of Industry but tourism is now our biggest earner, bigger than fishing. In the near future I think it will be bigger than everything else combined.
But tourism is not all bad, not at all. There are hotels being built, restaurants opening, in places where before you could maybe get a hot dog and nothing more. That has changed for the better.
We can be a bit hot headed. We argue a lot about politics, we kicked out our prime minister over the Panama Papers and now we’re effectively kicking out a president really, because his wife was involved in the Panama Papers.
We’re very quarrelsome. We quarrel about just about everything and we’re never as organised as our Scandinavian brethren. We look on them with envy but something in the back of our minds tells us that actually they’re a bit boring.