Welcome to Brand Iceland

A Destination Marketing Fantasy

CLASSIC VIEW: A calm day at Reykjavik’s Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach, where locals and savvy visitors can go to soak in a natural hot pool for a reasonable price. Photo by Ellen Girardeau Kempler for Gold Boat Journeys (Creative Cultural Travel Tours), April 2016.
CITY TRANSPORT: Reykjavik has an extensive bus system to accommodate locals and tourists. Photo: Roger Kempler for Gold Boat Journeys (Creative Cultural Travel Tours), April 2016.
Author’s Disclaimer: Brand Iceland is a tame and tourist-friendly destination created purely for marketing purposes. Any resemblance to the actual country of Iceland — home to a UNESCO City of Literature; a parliamentary system over 1,000 years old; a written history (as told in the Icelandic sagas) marked by battles with the elements and each other; and some of the planet’s wildest and most dangerous landscapes (including scalding geysers, pools and rivers; deadly rip currents; active volcanoes; yawning crevasses; unstable glaciers; moving tectonic plates; sheer, windswept cliffs; slippery mountain trails; volatile weather; and violent waterfalls) — is coincidental.

Flying Icelandair Over Greenland, En Route from Seattle to Reykjavik. Photo: Roger Kempler for Gold Boat Journeys (Creative Cultural Travel Tours), April 2016.

The advertising onslaught begins as soon as you board an Icelandair jet and plug your own headset into the entertainment console (conveniently available for purchase, in case you forgot). Before every movie, television show or musical selection begins, you’ll learn about souvenirs and tours you MUST buy.

To promote the airline’s winning strategy of letting visitors stay in Iceland for up to seven days on their way to other destinations, you’ll be asked to follow them and tag your photos #MyStopover for a chance to be featured in the in-flight magazine.

Landing at Keflavik, you’ll spot familiar faces staring seductively from walls and shop windows, like the breathless, pale siren who whispers, “Gee-SSSyr,” (geysir, both the Icelandic word for geyser and the name of a clothing company) in the video ads. You’ll see highly enhanced, billboard-sized images of the moss-covered lava fields, blue-white glaciers, steaming geysers and soaking pools, rainbow-draped waterfalls, black sand beaches, bird-inhabited cliffs, glistening ice lagoons, shaggy horses, comical puffins, turf-covered houses, elfin-sized doors, shimmering Auroras and glowing (but never threatening) volcanoes you probably already recognize from such movies and television shows as Game of Thrones, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, the Secret Life of Walter Mitty and many more.

POT OF GOLD: Skogafoss, in southern Iceland, is a popular tourist destination. Photo: Ellen Girardeau Kempler for Gold Boat Journeys (Creative Cultural Travel Tours), April 2016.

Welcome to Brand Iceland, the destination marketing invention that powered a sparsely populated, mostly rural, rocky, windswept, northerly and geologically unstable island out of a paralyzing 2008 economic crisis. With a total population of about 200,000 (the size of Cincinnati, Ohio) occupying roughly 100,000 square miles (an area about the size of the state of Kentucky) the island should have more than enough space for a high-powered tourist economy. But according to an April 2016 Businesswire report, tourism in Iceland has increased steadily over the last six years, and rose by 30 percent, to almost 1.3-million visitors, in 2015 alone. Visitation is projected to reach 1.7-million, or five times its resident population, in 2016.

Tourism now nets more revenue for Iceland than fishing, its leading industry since Viking settlement over 1,000 years ago.
ALWAYS CROWDED: The Black Sand Beach at Vik, southern Iceland. Photo: Ellen Girardeau Kempler for Gold Boat Journeys (Creative Cultural Travel Tours), April 2016.

At about $1,000 Icelandic kroner to every $8 U.S. dollars, bills add up fast. It’s not unusual to spend $50 for two beers and an appetizer during half-off happy hour pricing. In Brand Iceland’s capital city, my husband almost dropped his phone calculating the cost of a down jacket (cunningly crafted in the flattering, ultra-thin Icelandic style). It was $325.

NO LOCALS HERE: The ultra-touristy, manmade Blue Lagoon Resort. Photo: Ellen Girardeau Kempler for Gold Boat Journeys (Creative Cultural Travel Tours), April 2016

If you opt to visit the tourist-mobbed Blue Lagoon resort, you’ll wait in line to pay for the standard, towel-free (!) package, then receive an electronic wristband that opens and closes your locker and keeps track of extra-expensive charges throughout your visit (towel, drinks, smoothies, food, massages, etc., etc.).

Even the wild, unpopulated and remote southern tip of the country is filled with shops hawking sweaters in traditional patterns, artfully loomed blankets, stylish bohemian knitwear and cosmetics made by a spa with a mysterious blend identified only as “Icelandic herbs.”

TOURIST TRACE: A footstep makes its mark in moss on Eldhraun Lava Field, south Iceland. Photo by Ellen Girardeau Kempler for Gold Boat Journeys (Creative Cultural Travel Tours), April 2016.

Over our ten-day stay for the Iceland Writer’s Retreat, we debated about what to bring back for dog sitters and family. We finally settled on bags and bars of licorice and chocolate, local porter (only available in six-packs), Brenivin (cumin-flavored Aquavit), a Viking-themed stainless steel cake cutter (made in China), lava earrings and photo books.

LOCAL TASTE: A guide for Extreme Iceland displays the Icelandic drink of choice in a state liquor store. Photo: Roger Kempler for Gold Boat Journeys (Creative Cultural Travel Tours), April 2016.
As we waited for our plane home, a young woman stood snapping price tags in the duty-free. “Now my sister will understand why I didn’t buy her anything,” she said. “She might even be proud of me for resisting.”

In case you don’t give in to touristic temptation on your visit to the “Land of Fire and Ice,” most of the wildly expensive items you’ve seen along the way can be purchased online and delivered to your seat during your flight home. As is routine in this almost cashless society, an Icelandair flight attendant/salesperson will happily charge them to your credit card, along with the meal you are obliged to purchase en route. You won’t even think about the price for three weeks, until your shock-of-a-bill arrives. But by then, you’ll have gone through your photos, and you won’t care at all.

GLACIER HIKE: The author hiking Langjökull Glacier in south Iceland. Photo: Roger Kempler.

Founder and Chief Navigator of Gold Boat Journeys (Creative Cultural Travel Tours), Ellen Girardeau Kempler attended the Iceland Writers Retreat in April, 2016 This essay originally appeared, without photos, in The Atlantic Notes, June 4, 2016.