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Thoughts on Winter Tourism (ESA)

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Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir's picture

Promote Iceland has successfully been marketing Iceland as an all-year destination; practically every week there’s news of new tourism records.

The marketing office’s goal is to point out the advantages of off-season traveling, along with the magical experience of visiting Iceland in winter, and at the same time help make tourism a more profitable business.

Especially outside the capital region, tour operators and hotel owners are extremely busy in the summer but don’t have many bookings over the winter.

This is all good and something I’ve supported wholeheartedly. However, winter in Iceland is not just fun and games.

This winter has been particularly bad weather-wise—since November there have been an average of just three days between storm warnings (see this video on RÚV of a weather map showing depressions hitting the country again and again).

In between news of tourism records, there have been just as many stories about tourists whose cars have been stuck on impassable roads, whose car windows have been smashed in because of flying stones in gale-force winds and about tourists who have had to be rescued from the highlands in dismal weather conditions.

During a recent blizzard, 500 tourists were left stranded in their tour buses and rental cars on the Golden Circle in South Iceland.

It’s unacceptable, of course, that travel agents decide to run tours in spite of the Icelandic Met Office’s storm warnings.

With storm warnings being issued every three days on average, one can understand the frustration of travel agents and the temptation to go ahead with scheduled tours but this is people’s safety we’re talking about. At the end of the day, that must be more important than seeing Gullfoss waterfall (the view of which was probably blocked in the whiteout, anyway).

It’s important that when advertising winter tours to Iceland, people must also be made aware of the potential risks, the probability of tours being canceled and plan Bs, Cs and Ds must be at hand.

Travel plans for Iceland in winter must be flexible and visitors should come for longer than just a few days to be thoroughly able to enjoy their stay. Being weather-bound can be adventurous if you’re some place cozy and warm.

Another negative aspect of tourism is a point brought up by Páll Stefánsson last week: travel agents keep running tours to the same destinations and it’s always the same natural wonders that are advertised in marketing campaigns.

Iceland is being marketed as a secluded destination with untouched nature where people can experience peace and quiet, yet tourists find themselves in a crowd in national parks, up on glaciers, down on black-sand beaches, while gazing at waterfalls, glacial lagoons and geysers.

This will eventually leave people feeling disappointed, compromising Iceland’s image. Which would be unfair because there are still many destinations and regions you can visit to experience peace and quiet. They are just as beautiful and breathtaking as the most-advertised destinations but might not be included in your guidebook.

One tip is to travel beyond the capital region and south coast. During the peak tourism season in July, I’ve driven on the main roads in the East Fjords and West Fjords and visited the biggest attractions in these regions practically by myself.

You don’t have to travel long distances to enjoy the peaceful Icelandic nature, though, just leave the Ring Road. In West Iceland, the long and scenic Hvalfjörður fjord lies 40 minutes from Reykjavík.

After the fjord was circumvented by a tunnel, people don’t bother driving along its rugged coastline anymore but it’s worth it. In the innermost part of the fjord, a fairly short and easy hike takes you to Glymur, the second-highest waterfall in Iceland.

There are many recommendable hikes in the region, one route called Síldarmannagötur takes you north to the placid Skorradalsvatn lake in Skorradalur valley in Borgarfjörður, offering a spectacular mountain view from the highest point, and Leggjabrjótur takes you south to Þingvellir national park, offering a view of Glymur at the starting point.

If being alone (or nearly alone) in nature is what you’re after when visiting Iceland, my advice would be to talk to the locals and get them to reveal their ‘secret.’ But you must also pay attention if they warn you against the weather.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – eyglo(at)icelandreview.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.