Björg Árnadóttir

5-2 at the Stade de France. For the last time, the supporters of the Icelandic men’s national football team sang their song Að ferðalokum (Journey’s End). Though this amazing journey came to an end in Paris, a large chunk of Iceland’s population turned out to salute their team on its return to Reykjavík.

It’s been truly amazing to be an Icelander at a time when the world’s attention has focused on our men’s football team, which, just like the women’s team, has become extremely good. Hitherto it has always been our little nation’s aim to perform well “allowing for our small population”. No longer do we need to use that excuse, and rather than having to justify our tiny existence on the international scene we are now active participants. We’ve also opened our country to an ever-increasing flow of foreign tourists.

Icelanders’ alleged solidarity

I can’t help pricking up my ears when I hear foreign media credit our team’s success to the solidarity of the Icelandic nation. Solidarity hasn’t exactly been our hallmark in recent years. We Icelanders are fond of a good controversy, we are opinionated, and have ready access to a forum where we can air our opinions, given that almost the whole nation is connected to social media. At first glance it looks as if everybody is arguing with everybody else.

But the foreign media spotlight on our boys’ performance reveals that in our society we get many things right. Because there are so few of us, lines of communication are short, and emotionally speaking the gap between rich and poor is small. In fact it wouldn’t take much more than a concerted effort and a few phone calls to eliminate poverty from such a small society if there were sufficient support for a social act of that kind.

A nation without man-made borders has no natural enemies apart from the sea, the weather, and volcanoes; in our dealings with the forces of nature over the centuries we have learnt to stick together. I hope that the vision of Icelandic optimism and solidarity that has been projected on to giant screens across the world will motivate us to display solidarity in as many fields as possible.

Tourism — a growing industry

Mid-day in a small information centre in a remote location at latitude sixty-five degrees north. I’m on my lunch break and am writing. Like most Icelanders, I carry with me this passionate need to translate my experiences into text. An incident earlier today cries out to be put into words, and even if the experience was not all that remarkable, given the recent fame of the Icelandic nation it demands to be published in a major foreign newspaper.

This tourism lark is weird. It has suddenly become Iceland’s largest industry. Whatever one might think about aluminium smelting (which also brings in foreign currency) here in a country full of waterfalls and cheap electricity, any large-scale industry has to undertake detailed environmental assessment before operations begin, and such activity’s buildings and manpower requirements are carefully calculated. But tourism is as capricious as the fisheries that used to be the principal industry of a country surrounded by a cold ocean. Fish are no more likely to pre-announce their arrival than the tourists, who turn up in their parka-clad, walking-booted shoals, buying puffin soft toys (which someone had the bright idea of making before the rest of us cottoned on to the puffin being the most common bird around our shores) and demanding to see a Viking culture that we have to invent for them because there never was a Viking community here.

But of course we should have realised that you were on your way. It’s just that we were too busy arguing about how to receive you. For decades tourist numbers in Iceland grew slowly and steadily, and we were able to service our visitors and guide them. In the financial upheaval of 2008 it wasn’t just the economy and the nation’s image that crashed, but also the cost of travelling to Iceland. And then the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010 put us firmly in the spotlight — admittedly, a spotlight that led to frayed tempers when flights were delayed all over the world as a result of ash fall from an Icelandic mountain; but we have noticed that even negative international publicity about Icelandic politics is good publicity for the tourist industry. In recent years, moreover, the authorities have been highly successful in marketing Iceland as a destination, on top of which Iceland’s sportspeople and artists have formed a huge positive focus of attention; we can expect our team’s performance in Euro 2016 to spark a further boost to tourism. Latterly there has been a 30% annual increase in visitor numbers, and it is estimated that in 2016 our nation of just over three hundred and thirty thousand souls will be welcoming 1.7 million foreign tourists. Here at Lake Mývatn more than half a million people will visit an area with a residential population of around four hundred.

Enthusistic tourists

I’m sitting in the information centre, preparing to write about what happened this morning. You cannot imagine how much I enjoy working in the tourist industry. Tourists help me to see my country in a new light. Here I am in one of Iceland’s most picturesque locations, and yet I used only to see its beauty when the sun appeared. Foreign visitors have taught me to appreciate the country’s beauty in all weathers — and there are many kinds of weather here in the North Atlantic, on Europe’s second largest island.

Iceland is probably much luckier with its visitors than most other countries. Because of its location, people tend to have carefully weighed the decision to come here, some perhaps even fulfilling a life-long dream of visiting the country. They bounce around in their hire cars on pot-holed gravel mountain roads where the nearest signs of life are hundreds of kilometres away, or they cycle along those same roads in the teeth of the wind seeking to enjoy the solitude the mountains offer and to explore phenomena that only a young island can offer. Others live in smart hotels, stick to tarmac roads, and are more interested in the choice of cultural events than the lava that flowed the year before last. But all our tourists seem to share a deep interest in the country and its people, along with respect for a landmass that is said to be Europe’s last untouched territory.

Sleeping illegally

So, this morning I was at my desk describing Lake Mývatn’s delicate bird life, when a grumpy, tousled-looking man entered. I continued to explain to my lovely visitors that the area is protected by Icelandic laws and international wetland treaties, besides being part of Iceland’s largest national park. I was about to begin my patter on how the purpose of protection is not to keep people away from sensitive areas but rather to help them explore those areas in a sustainable way, when the tousled man raised his voice, speaking to the ranger at the next desk:

– I was disturbed twice last night and told to go to the campsite!

The ranger asked where he had been when he was disturbed.

– In the car park opposite the campsite, of course. I was asleep in my new Canadian campervan, which I bought so as not to have to pay for hotels. Back home, everyone says that in Iceland you just sleep in the car wherever you like.

The ranger apologised if the locals had been rude and explained that sometimes people took the law into their own hands, there being no police station in the area. But in Iceland, just as everywhere else, there are laws about where one may spend the night.

The man wasn’t having any of that, and quoted a half-understood Scandinavian “right to roam” that supposedly guarantees public access to common land. This right came into being long before people roamed the countryside in the numbers we see today, and it doesn’t say that everything is acceptable — on the contrary, it carefully states what you can and can’t do. And the law of the land supersedes the right to roam.

We are Europe

It was just this tiny experience I want to share with you, dear future visitors. My small nation has been entrusted with the preservation of Europe’s last “untouched” territory. Like so many other lakes around the world, Mývatn is battling with the eutrophication caused by human pollution, while more and more travel-worn tourists claim to be exempt from rules because they are uniquely able to leave no environmental trace. This sort of thing happens all over the world, not just here, which is why I had to share with you the morning’s little episode in this remote Icelandic location.

Since our Euro 2016 adventure, I feel as if the country we Icelanders have been tasked with protecting is of importance to the whole of Europe. We play football together, and when I watch Eurovision I feel that the people of Azerbaijan matter to me. We are Europe and I hope we continue on that road.


Björg Árnadóttir is a writer who works in the tourist industry in the summer. She is the author of the travel guide LAKE MÝVATN – People and Places.

Translated by Björg Árnadóttir (a different one!)

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