Commonly known as the ‘land of fire and ice’ due to its massive glaciers and active volcanoes, Iceland is the land of the unexpected. Take the opportunity to taste the local specialty of rotten shark and schnapps, enjoy a dip in a natural hot springs in the snow, spot one of the unique puffins, or explore the vast land of volcanoes and fjords. There is truly something for everyone on this incredible isolated island nation. Iceland is one of the most volcanic regions in the world, responsible for the famous geothermal springs and the infamous ‘ash cloud’ of 2010. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in March 2010 covered large areas of northern Europe and was responsible for closing the airspace of 20 European countries, disrupting around 10 millions travellers.

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Iceland has an interesting history – it was the last country to be settled in Europe and remains the most sparsely populated country in Europe. It is believed Iceland was first inhabited by Irish monks and then controlled by the Norse people in the 9th century. In the 1200’s, Iceland came under Norwegian rule, and was then passed onto Danish control in 1400 through the Kalmar Union (the unification of the kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark). It wasn’t until 1944 that Iceland became an independent republic.

Located in the north Atlantic Ocean – Iceland kisses the Arctic Circle, which explains why more than 13% of the landmass covered by snowfields and glaciers. Iceland has a total landmass of 39,768 sq mi (103,000 sq km), similar to that of South Korea and due to its northern location experiences 24 hour darkness in winter and sunlight in summer.

As of 2015 Iceland had a population of 330,000 people. The majority of the population live in the 7% of the island that is made up of fertile coastland. Iceland is a progressive, modern society that continuously ranks highly in measurements for quality of life (United Nations Human Development Index). Iceland operates under a constitutional republic, in 2009 prime minister was ousted due to the financial crash when the Icelandic banking system collapsed and required assistance form the IMF.

Icelandic people tend to have a strong connection with their natural environment and surroundings. In a 2013 survey, Icelandic people were ranked the world’s most friendly people to foreign visitors. Customs & music are inspired by centuries long insular existence – Icelandic folk tales are mixed with mysticism, ghosts and elves and trolls, and further shaped by the natural forces and a taxing environment.

Iceland has rapidly increased in popularity as a travel destination. In 2015 Iceland received more than 1 million international visitors. When you are visiting, you are spoilt for choice with a plethora of different regions to explore – make sure you check out the capital, Reykjavik, then get out of town and visit the West Coast (for volcanoes and waterfalls), Westfjords (Northwest for skiing), North Coast (for the midnight sun & northern lights), the east coast (small fishing villages), the Highlands (for hiking & trekking) and the south coast (for glaciers and seafood – the most popular tourist spot).

Ethical Travel Issues and advice

Supporting local people and local economies – souvenirs and gifts:

Tourists are also shoppers and love to buy souvenirs. Craft markets spring up to serve the tourists. They make money for locals, although sometimes what is sold is not local at all, but made on a different continent (often China) despite the logo on the candlestick, the T-shirt or the basket. What academics call ‘authenticity’, the true representation of a people’s material culture is subverted by tourism – reality lost through consumer demands for retail therapy. Instead of purchasing a last minute gift from the overpriced airport gift shop, support local businesses in Iceland by purchasing traditional Icelandic gifts. Keep an eye out for unique Icelandic products such as woollen Icelandic sweaters and blankets, handmade jewellery made with Icelandic volcanic rock, Icelandic music (think ‘Of monsters of men’ and Bjork) and locally produced artwork & photography. 

Ethical Photography:

Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography.

Iceland has beautiful and unique landscapes that are a photographers paradise. From the geothermal springs, to glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes, puffins and seaside villages – the options are endless. Taking photos of friendly local Icelandic people can be a highlight for many travellers and photographers. Smiles are universal ways to engage, as is showing people the photo you just took of them. If you show an interest in their work or ask them questions, they’ll be happy to have their picture taken. In some touristy places it has become common for people to ask for money for their photos to be taken. Do as you wish, but a photo of someone you shared a laugh with may have a better lasting impression than one you paid for. Don’t forget the same holds true for any porters and guides that may help you along the way. Take an interest in them and you’ll be rewarded with more great photo opportunities.

To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles on ethical photography: https://tourismconcern.wpengine.com/ethical-photography/ 

Whaling & Whale Watching:

According to Right Tourism, Iceland has a rapidly growing whale-watching industry that has been put at risk by the resumption of whaling. Iceland continues the hunting of some whale species.

You may be surprised to find restaurants in Iceland offering whale meat on their menus. Tourists are still trying whale carpaccio, whale tapas and other unusual dishes containing whale meat – which are not traditional dishes (only around 5% of Icelanders eat whale meat regularly, many consider it to have a poor taste and only eaten as a cheap meat). A recent survey found that over 80% of tourists to Iceland are opposed to whaling, yet many will still taste whale meat during their visit.

It is believed that carefully controlled whale watching is an economically beneficial alternative to hunting. If you do consider going on a whale watching tour, follow this link provided by Right Tourism: http://right-tourism.com/issues/wildlife-watching/whale-watching/#sthash.OJ9bkCXe.dpbs

Mountain rubbish:

Campers, hikers, and climbers should all follow a “Leave No Trace” approach when exploring the great outdoors. In many popular trekking locations around the world, a lack of this ethic has resulted in highlands and peaks being littered with garbage. Here are some suggestions for keeping the trekking regions beautiful for everyone to enjoy:

  • Carry out all your rubbish or dispose of your trash responsibly. Don’t overlook easily forgotten items, such as foil, cigarette butts and plastic wrappers. Take into account how long items take to degrade. For example, aluminium cans take 80 to 100 years and plastic bottles take up to 450 years. Besides, while degrading harmful chemicals end up in the ground water.
  • Collect rubbish where you see it on walking trails. If you cannot carry it out of the area, take the litter to a local rubbish collection depot or incineration centre.
  • When buying things from shops, do not accept plastic bags.
  • Never bury your rubbish. Digging disturbs soil and ground cover and encourages erosion, and buried rubbish may be dug up by animals, which may be injured or poisoned by it.
  • Minimize waste by taking minimal packaging and no more food than you will need. Take reusable containers or stuff sacks.
  • Take your used batteries home to your country.
  • Where there is a toilet, please use it. Where there is none, bury your waste. Dig a small hole 15cm (6in) deep and at least 100m (320ft) from any watercourse. Cover the waste with soil and a rock. In snow, dig down to the soil. Ensure that these guidelines are also applied to portable toilet tents.

Useful Information

The Gulf Stream keeps Iceland’s climate milder than many people expect from an island near the Arctic Circle. Average annual temperatures for the capital Reykjavik is 5°C, the average January temperature being -0.4°C (and very dark!) and July 11.2°C.

Iceland’s southern and western coasts experience relatively mild winter temperatures thanks to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. July and August are the warmest months and, in general, the chances of fine weather improve as you move north and east.

In regards to rainfall, the south coast is quite high (up to ~3000 mm), whereas in the highlands north of Vatnajökull have only 400 mm or less. The weather in Iceland is very changeable, gales are common among the coastal areas of Iceland, especially in winter. Thunderstorms are extremely rare. 

In regards to wildlife, the warm waters from the Gulf Stream makes the country’s coastal waters rich in birdlife and marine mammals, and it is one of the world’s best countries for whale watching. You have the chance to see a minke whale, killer whale and a humpback, along with the white-beaked dolphin. Interestingly, due to its isolation, the only native land mammal in Iceland is the Artic Fox.

The country is also known to be a birdwatcher’s paradise. Some of the most popular species by birders are the Icelandic Gyrfalcon (the largest falcon in the world), the Red-necked Phalarope and the Puffin (the country is home to one of the largest colonies of puffins).

From a geological point of view, Iceland is unique. Officially the largest island in Europe, Iceland is located in the Atlantic Sea on the mid-Atlantic ridge plate boundary. Iceland is known as a ‘hot spot’, which is an abnormal upwelling of magma onto the surface of the earth, creating high elevations in the oceanic crust, eventually creating the island nation we know today. The island has a very high concentration of active volcanoes that have erupted more than ever in the last 500 years (a third of the total global lava output).

From an energy and climate change policy stance, Iceland is generally a progressive nation. However, Iceland have a poor reputation in regards to energy policy, with many regions of high biodiversity flooded to make way for hydro-dams. Furthermore, Iceland hosts three massive aluminium smelters, which are both extremely energy intensive and also creating various environmental implications, such as fluoride, sulphur and heavy metals. 

When meeting and greeting a strong firm handshake is a common action. Many tourists see Icelanders as gruff and unapproachable, however most local people are friendly and helpful. Icelanders love to talk about the weather, much like the British and other Scandinavians.

Icelanders are very proud of their country, the nature and the stunning environment. Compliment these things, and you will get very eager tour guides and service. Try to avoid conversations regarding Iceland´s aluminium factories – this topic remains sensitive and has the country divided.

Most establishments accept credit cards and tipping is not expected in Iceland. 

Typical Icelandic food include lamb, potatoes, ‘Skyr’ (locally produced yogurt) and seafood such as cod, monkfish, herring, lobster, and salmon. As discussed previously, whale is still available on the menu however we recommend steering clear and not fueling the Icelandic whaling industry.

There is a similarity to the Scandinavian diet of Denmark and Sweden, such as Icelandic hot dogs, ‘pylsur’. Definitely worth trying from one of the many kiosks in the capital, go for the works with brown mustard, ketchup, raw onions and crunchy deep-fried onions.

There are also a number of unusual dishes to keep an eye out for – if you are feeling brave you can try meats such as horse, reindeer steak, sheep’s head, fermented shark and even Puffin! Be warned, if you are going to try the fermented shark, brace yourself – it is not for the faint hearted. Known as ‘hákarl’, the shark is best washed down with the local schnapps called Brennivin (aka the Black Death) a 80-proof rocket fuel that takes similar to vodka, with a herbal aroma.

Icelandic is the official language of Iceland. It is an Indo-European language, belonging to the sub-group of North Germanic languages. It is closely related to Norwegian and Faroese, although there are slight traces of Celtic influence in ancient Icelandic literature.

Icelandic is an insular language and has not been influenced much by other languages. As a result, the language has changed very little from when the country was first settled. English is widely spoken and understood. Try a couple of these out:

  • Hello: Halló
  • Good Morning: Góðan daginn
  • My name is John: Ég heiti John

Most Icelanders, around 80%, are members of the Lutheran State Church. This is a branch of Christianity that traces back to the teachings of Martin Luther. Lutheranism is one of the five major branches of Protestantism, is it not a single entity, instead it is organized in national churches. Other religions include other Christian denominations (5%) including the Free Church of Iceland and the Roman Catholic Church. Another 5% of people practice ásatrú, the traditional Norse religion.

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