REYKJAVIK — With Iceland’s economic meltdown sending its currency into freefall, tourists who saw this remote North Atlantic island as prohibitively expensive are now flocking to its dramatic volcanic scenery.
“Last year you got 60 kronur for one dollar, today you get 105 kronur,” says Will Delaney, a 22-year-old student from Canada who, like thousands of others, has taken advantage of the current exchange rate to see Iceland.
More than 10,500 Canadians visited the country last year, a rise of 68 percent from 2007, contributing to an overall total of 502,000 tourists in the nation of just 320,000, according to Iceland’s tourism board.
“The collapse of the banks had an effect on the currency, which fell quite a lot,” said tourism board director Oloef Yrr Atladottir.
In fact, the value of the Icelandic currency plummeted by 44 percent in 2008.
The drop “was not negative for the tourism industry because before the crisis Iceland had become a very expensive destination. It has become a more affordable destination now,” Atladottir said.
Delaney holds that it is now feasible to visit Iceland for just a couple hundred dollars (euros), something unimaginable a year ago before the crisis hit.
“I’m staying two weeks. I’m both working and travelling,” says the student of sustainable resources and renewable energy.
“Iceland is a very good model to study with the geothermal power .. and I can travel outside Reykjavik to explore the fantastic landscapes.”
Iceland is known for its breathtaking scenery, including the Blue Lagoon hot springs, spouting geysers, plunging waterfalls, and glaciers and volcanoes, as well as the Thingvellir national park, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Advertisements for national carrier Icelandair have popped up in newspapers everywhere and special promotions are all over the Internet.
Iceland’s tourism sector, which employs around 8,200 people, has pulled out all the stops to avoid collapse after the country’s financial sector crashed late last year.
The country’s three major banks, which had all invested aggressively abroad, were brought down in October by the global credit crunch, forcing the government to take control of them.
Iceland was pushed to the verge of bankruptcy as the economy and currency nosedived, and the right-left coalition government, seen as partially responsible for the crisis, was ultimately forced out of office.
The country’s economy is now beginning to show signs of recovery, thanks to an international bailout, as Icelanders prepare to go to the polls on April 25 in a general election.
“Some companies in the tourism industry are in difficulty… as all over the world. But we haven’t experienced any mass bankruptcies or closures in the past months,” Atladottir said.
That’s saying a lot, given that unemployment has more than tripled in the first quarter, soaring from 2.3 percent to 7.1 percent, official statistics show.
“Tourists have replaced the local people in the bars of the capital,” says Johann Mar Valdimarsson, a 26-year-old bartender at a Reykjavik pub.
“Before, the inhabitants spent their evening here. Now they start drinking at home and they come here later for a last drink,” Valdimarsson says, adding: “Fortunately there are tourists.”
He saw the number of tourists dip in October when the crisis erupted, but pick up again in November. And they have have kept on coming ever since.
The tourism board has observed the same trend.
“If you look at our visitors in the past two months we have not experienced a big drop. And our visitors have spent more money in Iceland because it’s more affordable,” Atladottir said.
“This summer looks quite good,” she added.
The number of US visitors fell by 22 percent last year, but they have started coming back, she said.
“The tourism sector should do well this year,” Reykjavik University economist Gylfi Zoega predicted.
The industry is focusing its efforts on attracting Europeans to Iceland. Britons represent the biggest group of tourists, with around 70,000 visitors in 2008, ahead of Germans with 45,100 and Danes with 41,000.
“I’m fairly optimistic. When you have a recession like this people look for shorter travels and we want to remind our customers and potential customers that Iceland is the perfect destination for that kind of travel,” Atladottir said.
In 2006, tourism accounted for 4.1 percent of gross domestic product, according to the most recent statistics available. Since the start of the decade, the number of tourists has risen by more than 66 percent.