Despite Financial Crisis in Iceland, Tourism Is on the Rise

By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 7, 2008

They're calling it "Halfpriceland."

Two months ago, Iceland, a cold and ruggedly beautiful chunk of volcanic rock on the edge of the Arctic Circle, was one of the world's most expensive nations.

Then the global financial crisis hit, the country went bust, and almost overnight the Icelandic currency, the krona, lost half its value and prices of everything from boots to beer returned to earth.

Now, as thousands of angry Icelanders protest in the streets over disappearing wealth and jobs, their nation's tourism industry is enjoying a boom in bargain-hunters.

People from Boston to Beijing, many of them younger and less-affluent travelers who said they had always considered Iceland prohibitively expensive, are filling planes heading to Reykjavik, the world's northernmost capital.

Many are even coming for weekend shopping trips to a city that, until recently, made the glitzy shopping districts of New York and London seem reasonable.

"You don't do this every day -- it's cool," said Andonis Marden, 19, a student at Boston's Northeastern University, who was standing near one of Iceland's famous hot-water spouts as the geyser blasted steam 50 feet into the frigid air.

"I would have come when I was older and had more money, but now it's cheap," said Marden, who heard about Iceland's sudden affordability in an e-mail alert, paid $475 for round-trip airfare and spent the Thanksgiving weekend in a $23-a-night Reykjavik youth hostel.

Officials at Icelandair said bookings from the United States are up 90 percent over last year for the period from December through next March. Bookings from Britain for the same period are up 48 percent.

Those spikes in reservations are especially unusual because winter, when Iceland gets less than five hours of sunlight a day, is generally the slowest season for tourism.

The Blue Lagoon, a large hot spring powered by the island's potent geothermal energy, had its busiest November ever, despite Iceland's worst financial crisis in modern history.

"It's a peculiar situation that the economy has created an opportunity to come, but people are grabbing at it," said Blue Lagoon chief executive Grimur Saemundsen.

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