By Dominic Hinde
“I love hiking in Iceland most, there are lots of brilliant paths.”
Iceland is many things: a shrine to disaster capitalism, a centre for post-rock and minimalist classical music, and not least a great place to go on holiday. So great in fact that almost four times the population of the island nation visit annually.
When I first visited 15 years ago it was much more rough and ready than it is today. The airport road was still to be rebuilt and the hotels felt like the ones I regularly encounter in small Swedish towns. I’ve been back several times since to report on the ongoing story (n.b not saga) of Europe’s most peripheral nation, dodging metaphors and mythical allusions along the way.
All countries and territories with an eye on the tourist dollar engage in branding, formal and informal, but Iceland is something else. What marks it out is an approach that is both so huge and so well monitored. Iceland may indeed have many brilliant paths, but as a tourist you are likely to tread the same ones again and again.
Although it is possible to sail to Iceland from Denmark, and to fly to one of its smaller airports from Greenland or The Faroe Islands, almost every single tourist makes landfall at Keflavik International, the former US airbase on the windswept Reykjanes peninsula 30 miles from Reykjavik.
All visitors are subject to the same process of intensive branding from the moment of arrival. If they have come by national flag carrier Icelandair or the low-cost WOW (!) air, which most will have, then the curation begins as soon as they get on board in London, Frankfurt, New York or Toronto. In-flight magazines list restaurants, experiences and destinations (not the most exciting ones of course), and the airlines have a list of selected partners.
Fly with Icelandair and your plane will even carry the name of a selected volcano, moving Iceland’s peaks to the tarmac of European and American airports. The airline has no business class; instead premium passengers unwind in Saga Class as the bespoke Hot Spring soft indie anthologies play over the PA system (Icelandair also has its own constantly curated Spotify account).
Once you land the curation steps up a level. Because Keflavik is in the middle of a lava desert, the only way back and forth is by bus, yet the airport transfer service in Reykjavik is not just a means of transport but another curatorial device. Buses deliver you direct to your hotel and inform you of the possibilities for watching whales and bathing in the Blue Lagoon (not a natural hot spring as you can find elsewhere, but the by-product of a geothermal power station). The whole experience is akin to being taken to an East German Interhotel and given a brochure of approved tourist sites designed to bring in foreign currency reserves.
The same goes for the Golden Circle, the tourist route outside of Reykjavik kept busy with convoys of tourist buses. They sit with their engines running in front of the city's main hotels, with signs on the dashboard reading ‘Golden Circle Classic’, ‘Golden Circle + Whalewatching’ or ‘Golden Circle + Spa.’
Tourism in Iceland is an industry in the true sense; it is industrial in scale, moving along an efficient production line of unforgettable experiences. One of the knock-on effects of the Icelandic financial crash has been the intentional explosion of this enterprise. Initially aided by the currency crash, Iceland is once again as pricey as ever.
The country has become a formidable worldwide marketing behemoth in the intervening years. In 2008 the various tourist agencies were brought together into an organisation called Promote Iceland. It employed a London-based digital marketing agency, Brooklyn Brothers, to create a new global strategy for attracting tourists and started punting Iceland on the internet as a ‘digital country’. The aim was to top the Google search ranks and present the ideal break for hipsters and middle-aged couples alike.
The strategy has been phenomenally successful, with people wowed not only by the prices of WOW air but the wilderness landscapes waiting at the other end. Ironically, every budget flight represents a case of diminishing returns, as Iceland’s glaciers retreat at an alarming rate due to climate change, altering the lowland ecosystems around them.
The irony of this, and the obvious trade-off between mass tourism and conservation, is that the Icelandic tourist industry is a synthesis of landscape nationalism and the need for economic self-determination. The story below the surface is a postcolonial tale of legitimising the nation and reaching economic parity; thus the country is unique in combining its nationalist imagery and contemporary export economy into a single product.
Icelanders want what most other Western Europeans want – cheap holidays in Spain, houses, cars and big TVs. The combined KFC and Taco Bell on the industrial estate on the road into Reykjavik is as authentic as the restaurants punting whalemeat. In Canada and Alaska, the frontier is neatly divided between the tourism opportunities of indigenous culture and the consumer needs of white populations. But Iceland doesn’t match the criteria for Arctic frontier because the indigenous people are white Germanic jeep driving capitalists. There are no indigenous villages to visit, and the local delicacies are hotdogs and coffee bought sold in service stations on the road from Akureyri to Husavik.
Icelanders are both colonisers and colonised. The financial boom that ended in disaster put the island nation on the map, but did so by giving it the ghost economy of a medium-sized country. Tourism is different; by selling itself so spectacularly, Iceland is commodifying itself in a way never seen before. It is the only export industry where you invite people in to wander around, buying memories. The 1,290,000 visitors who arrived in 2015 each paid handsomely for their mementos and Instagram posts. In a country of 320,000 people that money goes far.
Laugavegur, the main commercial street through downtown Reykjavik, is the Nordic theme zone of a Disneyland resort as focus grouped by readers of the New York Times weekend supplement - one long gift shop interspersed by theme restaurants, a branch of Dunkin Donuts and a steady stream of SUV’s cruising the strip.
The corrugated iron building fronts are familiar to anyone who has browsed tourism websites or watched Fortitude, but Laugavegur is flanked by newly-built mini skyscraper hotels and there is an affordable housing shortage on the peninsula old Reykjavik inhabits. Around the corner is a huge hole in the ground adjacent to the Harpa exhibition and concert hall – it will soon be Iceland’s first true five star hotel, developed for 250 guests by the US property group Carpenter and Company.
All of this – and Iceland’s continued economic rehabilitation – is dependent on the tourists coming and staying, and of Iceland remaining a strong brand. Of Iceland’s many brilliant paths, the one that matters most to Icelanders is the route through the gift shop.