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Jerking side to side in an all-terrain vehicle, we navigated barren roads of volcanic ash, pausing to photograph glacial lakes and moss-covered mountains that were formed during the last Ice Age, nearly 3 million years ago. Our sights were set on Landmannalaugar in the Highlands of Iceland, where we would hike an active volcano, soak our sore muscles in a geothermal hot spring and stay up late into the night to search for glimpses of the Northern Lights.
The lights weren’t dancing for us that evening, but we sat in awe of the shape-shifting red and pink clouds in the distance. Another of Iceland’s volcanoes, Bardarbunga, was shooting lava into the air at dramatic heights, and the clouds were reflecting its fury in the dead of night.
In the weeks leading up to my Iceland departure, the news was flooded with images of Bardarbunga’s eruption and speculation about how it would or wouldn’t affect air travel in Europe. The ongoing news didn’t deter me, though. Instead, I began searching for helicopter tour operators that could give me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly near lava as it exploded more than 200 feet into the sky.
If the saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” rings true, then Iceland is, indeed, a PR engine. It seems that controversy, more than anything, has put the Scandinavian country on the world stage again and again, from its stance on commercial whaling and the debilitating economic crash of 2008 to the eruption of what was perhaps the world’s most mispronounced volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, in 2010.
The Icelandic tongue twister caused the largest closure of European airspace since World War II, but it also managed to pique the collective curiosity of travelers. Tourism to Iceland has risen steadily since the 2010 eruption and, last year, for the first time in history, tourism in Iceland drove more revenue to the economy than the fishing industry.
Access GrantedAccording to Icelandic Tourist Board figures, Iceland documented a 20 percent uptick in North American travelers in 2014. While many were exploring the remote island for the first time, others chose to return for off-the-beaten path experiences, from self-driving tours of the Ring Road to off-season visits to the Highlands and West Fjords.
“The whole country is a geological wonder, riddled with hot springs and volcanoes and caves,” said Katie Hammel, senior travel editor for Viator, who has visited Iceland on four occasions. “The culture is uniquely Icelandic, but since nearly everyone speaks some English, it’s very accessible to foreigners.”
The boost in both repeat and first-time visitors from North America is due in part to an increase in airlift, and the trend is poised to continue this year, which has more scheduled flights to Iceland than any other on record.
Icelandair currently offers service from 14 North American gateways, including Anchorage; Portland, Ore.; Denver; and Seattle. In February, Iceland’s flagship carrier announced plans for a codeshare partnership with JetBlue that will offer clients combined ticketing and baggage transfers. North American travelers can also take advantage of a complimentary stopover in Iceland for up to seven nights when traveling to any of Icelandair’s 25 destinations in Europe.
Through Aug. 1, Delta Air Lines is offering daily service to Reykjavik from JFK, and relatively new budget carrier Wow Air began offering seasonal service from Boston and Washington, D.C., starting at $99 one way.
The Harpa concert hall and conference center is one of many reasons why travel to Iceland continues to grow rapidly. // © 2015 Promote Iceland
The Blue Lagoon is the country’s top tourist spot. // © 2015 Promote Iceland
Gullfoss waterfall is another popular attraction. // © 2015 Promote Iceland
Visitors may catch sight of humpback whales, as well as minke and orca whales. // © 2015 Promote Iceland
North Sailing Husavik will soon launch the world's first zero-carbon whale-watching cruise. // © 2015 Promote Iceland
Leif Eriksson’s home in Eiriksstadir // © 2015 Promote Iceland
Geyser tours take place in active geothermal fields. // © 2015 Promote Iceland
A glacial lagoon ion Iceland // © 2015 Promote Iceland
A Popularity ContestFirst-time visitors tend to stay in Reykjavik and book Golden Circle tours that include three of Iceland’s most popular tourists sites: Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir Geothermal Area and UNESCO-designated Thingvellir National Park, where HBO’s “Game of Thrones” filmed its fourth season. High on the bucket list, the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa — which welcomes up to 5,000 guests per day — is the most-visited tourist site in the country.
However, those who haven’t planned ahead this summer may find themselves in a bit of hot water (and not the therapeutic kind). This year, the Blue Lagoon began requiring that all guests make a reservation. As a result, the lagoon is completely sold out for the summer.
“I always recommend that first-timers plan ahead to get the most out of their stay, see the most nature, have the best opportunity to interact with the locals and do some shopping,” said Sif Gustavsson, principal of Consultelligence, who served as director of Icelandic Tourist Board USA before it closed in 2012. “And some tours only go if there are a minimum number of participants, so you increase your chances of departure by booking ahead — this is critical during the winter travel season when tourism is not as busy. Another great tip is to look at shoulder season for travel during the months of April, May, September and October, because you still have normal daylight hours and good weather but are paying low-season prices.”
Coming AttractionsThose left in the cold by the Blue Lagoon needn’t dwell on it too much. They can actually be among the first to experience some of Iceland’s brand-new attractions, including Langjokull Glacier Ice Cave, located on Europe’s second-largest glacier. Opening June 1, the man-made ice cave will teach visitors about global warming and showcase the uncanny blue ice located in the heart of the glacier. Walking through LED-lit tunnels, visitors will discover interior chambers containing exhibitions, a cafe and a small chapel that can be booked for weddings. Guests can also rent a multipurpose cave room for parties, meetings and events. The ice cave is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer and can be accessed through a number of tour operators, including Discover Iceland and Iceland Travel.
Whales of Iceland, which opened in February in the Reykjavik harbor area, is a permanent exhibition featuring life-size models of the 23 species found around the country’s coast, including humpback, minke and orca. It is billed as the largest museum of its kind in Europe. Tickets run $25 for adults, $13 for children or $50 for families (two adults and two children).
A 30-minute drive from Reykjavik, Fakasel Horse Park gives visitors a chance to meet and learn about Icelandic horses through stable tours, professional riding demonstrations and a nightly theater show, “The Legends of Sleipnir.” The 45-minute show uses multimedia and special effects to weave together Norse mythology and exhibition riding.
The music of Bjork, Sigur Ros, Of Monsters and Men and other homegrown talent sets the stage for one of the country’s latest attractions, the Icelandic Museum of Rock ’N’ Roll. Located just a few miles away from Keflavik International Airport, the museum equips guests with iPads to help tell the story of Iceland’s most celebrated and underrated musicians.
A Surge in AccommodationsAccording to Icelandic Tourist Board’s “Tourism in Iceland in Figures” report, released in April, occupancy rates in hotels and guesthouses rose almost every month in 2012 and 2013. To keep up with demand, several new properties are in the pipeline, some of which will open by the high season.
Opening in June, Fosshotel Reykjavik will be the largest hotel in the country, with first-class conference facilities and 320 rooms. Four-star Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Kultura will open in the summer with 142 rooms. Boutique property Apotek Hotel opened its doors in December 2014.
The country’s first five-star property will break ground later this year and will be managed by a yet-to-be-named international hotel brand. The 250-room property will be adjacent to Harpa concert hall and offer conference rooms, a spa and a number of restaurants.
Additionally, the ever-popular Blue Lagoon plans to offer on-site accommodations geared toward the luxury traveler in the future, though development for a hotel and private thermal spa area is currently stalled.
Other Reykjavik hotels are expanding, as well. Later this month, Hotel Borg will debut a wing of 43 guestrooms, and Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina will add 49 guestrooms and two event facilities that can accommodate 80 people.
On a BoatWith Disney Cruise Line and Windstar Cruises adding Iceland to their itineraries, the cruise sector is presenting more opportunities for travelers to experience the region’s stunning, raw nature.
“During the summer, most rural hotels in Iceland fill up quickly, so cruising is a great way to experience the quaint countryside via the various ports, of which there are 13 in all,” Gustavsson said.
Adventure Travel Trade Association member Iceland Pro Cruises will offer circumnavigation cruises for the first time this summer. A cruise on the 224-passenger Ocean Diamond includes everything from zodiac excursions and horseback riding to whale watching and onboard performances by local bands. Ten-day cruises start at $4,059 per person, based on double occupancy.
Later this month, North Sailing Husavik will launch the world’s first zero-carbon whale-watching cruise onboard Opal, a ship that utilizes a new propulsion system based on electric-car technology. In addition to three-hour whale-watching cruises in Skjalfandi Bay, the ship will sail three-day expedition cruises around Iceland.
Growing PainsIn January 2015, Icelandic Tourist Board reported a 34.5 percent increase in visitors to Iceland through Keflavik International Airport compared to the same month last year. Furthermore, since 2000, the amount of cruise ship passengers visiting Iceland has increased significantly, from 27,000 to 95,000 in 2013. This represents a mean annual increase of approximately 12 percent per year. But such a huge spike in popularity has industry players wondering if tourism in Iceland is growing too quickly.
“Visit the top spots, and the longest lines won’t be to see the sites but to use the toilet facilities,” said Albert Eythorsson, travel planner and co-founder of Total Iceland. “Roads are deteriorating rapidly, and there is no money to fix them. In many places, nature is taking an irreversible beating, and few are doing much to combat this. There is not really a huge need to limit the numbers of visitors — this is a big country — but measures have to be taken to guard our treasures, or else they lose their appeal over time.”
The trend among travel suppliers and tour operators is to promote a greater variety of locations, such as the west and north regions of Iceland.
“There is concern from the government and citizens of Iceland that in the future, concentrated visitation to iconic attractions may threaten to harm Iceland’s fragile ecology and degrade the visitor experience,” Gustavsson said. “I currently work with several tour operators to develop unique itineraries in off-the-beaten-path locales and to encourage them to think outside the Golden Circle.”
The most ethereal moments seem to happen away from the crowds, in places both remote and serene. I think back to the night I spent in a mountain hut, cocooned in a sleeping bag, with a group of travelers, our bellies full of lamb and skyr (yogurt). We had conquered Brennisteinsalda, said to be the most colorful volcano in the country. Thick streaks of green, burnt orange, red and charcoal brushed across its peaks like a Mark Rothko painting. Clouds of sulfurous vapors warmed us as they rose through cracks in the volcanic rock, reminding us that Iceland is not only young but very much alive.