Posted by: neilh10 | December 28, 2014

2015

The apartment is still running strong for 2015. There has been a big increase in tourism in both Iceland and the Westfjords and the place is changing fast. It is certainly no longer the unexplored wilderness it was when I first arrived in 2009. There are now many similar apartments being rented out as holiday homes, and one of the buildings in the village the old bank has been converted to a guesthouse. New restaurants and travel businesses are popping up all over the place.

The growth of tourism is certainly helping to improve the economic fortunes of the Icelanders. From the point of view of a visitor there is now a well developed tourist industry that will help you get wherever you want to go, although the costs are high compared even with other scandinavian countries and it has to be said that the quality can sometimes be variable. Many of the regular tourist destinations particularly around the Reykjavik area are dealing with many more people than they were designed for. Record breaking numbers of cruise ships continue to arrive in ports around the country. Many of the voices that you hear walking around major towns and tourist attractions are now foreign.

Only time will tell where all this is leading. Personally I am quite optimistic that the situation will improve over time. Certainly the prospect of developing the tourist industry may lead people to think twice about more environmentally destructive alternative forms of economic development.

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Posted by: neilh10 | November 11, 2013

Hello

It’s been nearly a year since my last post. Due to various changes in my life I don’t really write as much about Iceland any more, although it is still very much part of my life. After spending last Christmas there and getting caught up in one of the worst storms in living memory, and indeed being stranded in the town for nearly a week, I’ve decided that I will no longer promote the apartment for winter bookings. Not that i’d discourage people from visiting Iceland in wintertime, I just think that if you go in wintertime and particularly in a remote and off the beaten track place like the Westfjords, you are better off in the hands of the regular tourist industry.

This year I registered on airbnb and had a lot of business from that website. I also registered on Bungalo.is, which is an Icelandic website which undertakes real time bookings and I have had a lot of business from there as well. Given that both of these websites basically operate on a ‘per night’ pricing model, it makes sense for me to update my own pricing structure to reflect this. From now on the price will be 95 pounds per night, with cleaning included. There is also a two night minimum stay requirement.

I don’t want to dwell any more on the growth of tourism in Iceland. At the end of the day, it is what the Icelanders make it. I’d still definetely encourage people to visit Iceland but like anywhere else think carefully about what impact they are having on the place while they are there. Flateyri, when I last looked, is still pretty much the same as it ever was. The bus service has really improved for the better, but the bank and post office closed. No luxury hotels or puffin shops, yet.

 

Posted by: neilh10 | January 1, 2013

2013: An update

I’ve not really been posting on here with much frequency of late, but I do want to keep going with this blog and turn it in to something. Now in my fourth (calender) year, I have some more reflections.

Iceland is currently undergoing a significant expansion in its tourist industry and I can’t see it working out well. I can’t complain about it because I see myself as part of the problem: I’ve been flying to and from the country countless times, not really learning Icelandic, and contributing to the race to the bottom: 20 euro per day car hire and dirt cheap internet hotel deals. Even my own internet apartment rental business competes with established businesses (hotels etc) that actually employ people and play a meaningful role in the local community. It is a conflict that I feel really deeply, and the only real consolation is the fact that I am somehow helping to bring people in to a village that really needs people to use and support its services, to appreciate its beauty and to see it for something more than a ten minute pit stop on a grand Icelandic roadtrip in a rented jeep.

So, on balance, I still think that it is something that has a positive effect, something worth doing. Whilst I do look back on the kind of amateur tourist propoganda I was peddling two years ago with a sense of mild embarrassment, I don’t want to go to the other extreme and go all reclusive and anti tourist.

On reflection, I’ve found that as a tourist you can take quite simple steps to have a great time, meet local people and have a very positive influence while you are in Iceland. It’s really just your decision. As with so many things in life, you are either going to be a positive or a negative influence based on how you behave and the choices you make as a consumer. I don’t think there is much more to it than that.

Posted by: neilh10 | October 27, 2012

ICELAND EXPRESS: RIP

Earlier this week, the news broke that Iceland express, Iceland’s first and notoriously unreliable low cost airline has finally collapsed, being taken over by wow air, its upstart competitor formed earlier this year by a former Iceland Express CEO.

As readers of this blog will be aware, this is hardly a surprising development. IEX’s operations have always been mired in mystery and characterised by a tendency towards last minute changes, most notably this time last year when it cancelled its flights to the US with immediate effect, leaving passengers confused about what this would mean for them (what it did mean, in fact, was that you need to call up the call centre who would rebook you on Icelandair, presumably at enormous cost to the airline). 

What appears to have happened, in so far as I can work out, is that wow air have essentially bought the rights to IEX’s future booking sheet and flight schedule, meaning that if you booked on IEX, you will basically travel on wow air instead. They have not actually taken over IEX in its entirety, who presumably have significant obligations not least to their employees and to Czech airlines, who were contracted to operate the flights for them. (Indeed, both airlines are in many ways just internet ticket booking agencies, they have never actually flown any planes in so far as I understand it). Looks like a nice mess for the lawyers to pick over. 

The end of IEX is no great disaster for consumers. The flights were often late and the legroom was often abysmal. However, they were also a very cool airline. The flight attendants (for some reason there were six, three from Czech airlines and three icelanders) would, for instance, give out free beer because they didn’t think it was cold enough. They also had a very liberal policy towards luggage and the fact that the legroom was abysmal hardly mattered, because most of the time the flights were less than half full. They had nice touches like branded cushions and blankets. Oh yeah, and their internet booking system was totally disorganised – you could easily predict when the low prices would come up. They even did things like refund your ticket when you decided that you didn’t want to go anymore. 

It’s no great disaster, because wowair are basically the same company, and I strongly suspect they will have the same attitude. However, given the introduction and strength of the competition, I have doubts as to whether even WOW Air can survive against competitors like Norwegian and easyJet who have far greater economies of scale and much lower running costs. We’ll see.  

 

From the easyjet website:

easyJet, the UK’s largest airline, announced today the addition of two new routes from Manchester and Edinburgh to Reykjavik, which will begin in March 2013. Iceland is renowned for its geothermal hot springs, ethereal glaciers and magical views of the Northern Lights – as well as its volcanoes.

Twice weekly flights will leave Edinburgh and Manchester from 14 and 21 March 2013 respectively. The flights will leave Edinburgh on Monday’s and Thursdays and Manchester on Thursdays and Sundays.

Earlier this year, easyJet operated its inaugural flight to Reykjavik from London Luton – a route which has proved popular with passengers both in the UK and Iceland. The Luton – Reykjavik service is now being increased from three to four flights per week throughout the year, bringing the total number of easyJet flights to the destination to eight per week from next March. The additional flight will operate on a Friday.

Paul Simmons, UK Director at easyJet, commented:

“We’re delighted to be expanding our flights from the UK to Reykjavik in response to the route’s growing popularity. The destination is proving popular for leisure and business travelers alike with easyJet fares available from as little as £24.99 (one way including taxes).

“easyJet has carried almost 30,000 passengers between London and Reykjavik since its London Luton service to the city launched in March and we anticipate over 75,000 more passengers will take advantage of the easy and affordable flights from Manchester and Edinburgh next Summer.”

“We’re confident that uptake from passengers in both Manchester and Scotland will help the UK’s connections with Iceland to go from strength to strength.”

Steingrimur J. Sigfusson, Iceland’s Minister of Industries, Innovation and Tourism commented:

easyJet’s decision is a positive step and a sign of confidence in the Icelandic economy.

“It’s terrific news that easyJet is increasing its services and adding these new routes to Reykjavik. We have a wealth of beauty, history and wonders to explore. There really is something for everyone, all year round and we welcome the expansion.”

The only problem with these flights is that – in the case of London/Manchester – they leave at 6am in the morning, and return at 10 am. The timings are just useless. Why would you get up at 2am to get a 6am flight, when you could fly out the night before? And as for coming back. 10am is just a rubbish time, because you need to get the bus from Reykjavik at like 7am, so you miss your breakfast entirely, and then you get home at like 4pm, so you basically spent an entire day in transit. Not much fun.

The Edinburgh times are much better (leaving at 6PM, arriving back at 11pm), but thats not much use unless you live in Edinburgh.

On balance, I think its good thing that easyJet are serving the icelandic routes, mainly because it gives people more choice and they don’t get stuck with a whacking great £500 bill if they need to fly back with Icelandair at short notice. But, as I have said previously, the actual experience is pretty miserable, Luton Airport is a horrible place at 6am and a difficult place to get to. 

I always thought it would make more sense for easyJet to serve the Icelandic route through the night as some German carriers do, eg leave the UK at midnight and return at 7am. Or leave at 5pm and return at midnight. They probably don’t care what I think and they are obviously making a good profit on the route, so good for them. 

Posted by: neilh10 | August 11, 2012

update on wow air

update on wow air

I flew to Iceland back in June on Wow Air. It was an uneventful and comfortable flight, the seats were leather and had a lot of legroom, and the safety demonstrations etc were very funny. The flight was also pretty much empty.

Wow air was set up by a disgruntled former CEO of Iceland Express. It is effectively a virtual airline as the actual flights are operated by Avion express, a lithuanian charter airline, albeit with wow air flight attendants etc. The network is virtually identical to Iceland express and the two airlines have fiercely competed with each other, bringing the cost of flying to Iceland down significantly and probably also significantly damaging each others profit margins – although the rise in customers due to the increase in tourism probably means they will both survive, for the time being. 

Anyway, wow air have just slashed their winter timetable. Amongst other destinations they originally planned to fly to London Stansted three times per week. Now their timetable (see attached link) says that they will actually be flying 2 x per week (Friday and Monday) but they are only actually selling tickets for Monday flights, leaving Gatwick at 1pm or thereabouts. 

I dont know what this means if you had booked a flight on one of the flights from Stansted, presumably they will notify you and reschedule or refund your ticket. In the past Iceland Express have had similar tactics of last minute cancellations (for instance at one point they cancelled all flights to New York at the last minute, ceasing to fly to the USA with immediate effect, right in the run up to Christmas). Frankly it is very unprofessional and annoying. 

Overall, it’s worth being a bit cautious about booking tickets on Wow Air, given this development. 

UPDATE

I figured what out what was going on with the mysterious wow air flights: appears that the plane takes off from Reykjavik on Fridays, sits on the tarmac at Gatwick over the weekend, and then returns on Monday. I have absolutely no clue how this can possibly make economic sense, given that they presumably need to pay for the aircrew to stay in a hotel for the weekend (or indeed, fly them home on one of their competitors!).

Posted by: neilh10 | May 16, 2012

Getting to Iceland: Icelandair vs easyjet.

I just flew back from Iceland via Icelandair.

It is easily a better experience than the tacky, uncomfortable, sardine like environment of easyJet. Flying out from London Luton Airport at 6.40am is just totally ridiculous. Luton is a terrible airport, difficult to get to and with hardly enough seats for all the passengers. And then, you need to queue, STANDING UP, for an hour while you wait to board the plane, prior to the scramble for seats. I can cope with the rubbish seat pitch, but was dissappointed to observe that easyJet have now started playing automated messages selling scratch cards. They really have stooped to ryanair levels, for the most part.

When you think that the flights, coupled with the time spent at the airport, comprise around 10 hours of your trip, then you can start to understand the logic of providing a quality, relaxing, professional experience, which is exactly what Icelandair do. In my view, the only incentive to fly easyJet is if you can get the flights really cheap. Otherwise it isn’t worth the misery you will inflict on yourself by travelling this way.

If you really need to travel to Iceland by easysket, i’d get a decent pair of noise cancelling headphones to try and block out the horror of Luton Airport.

Posted by: neilh10 | May 11, 2012

Tourists: The New Herring?

Tourists: The New Herring?

Had another article published in Reykjavik Grapevine earlier this week, looking at the comparison between tourists and herrings. Check it out!

Posted by: neilh10 | May 7, 2012

SEEDS

I just got an email from Seeds, a volunteering association in Iceland. I’ve been interested in the work of Seeds since 2010, when they set up a workcamp in Flateyri. At the time I thought it was a bit bizarre that people from Germany, Spain and Poland would sign up to volunteer in a place like Iceland, which until recently was one of the richest countries in the world. Furthermore, the work that they were doing appeared to largely revolve around improving the appearance of the town. It just didn’t make sense that foreign volunteers would do this, surely it should be the responsibility of the local government?

But, the more I reflected on it, the more I started to think that this was actually a really good thing. The volunteers were working with the younger people in the town to install a sense of pride and civic responsibility, and also environmental consciousness which is sadly noticeably absent amongst many Icelanders. On this basis I would wholeheartedly endorse their request as set out below. 

Dear friends,

If you know someone who may be interested in volunteering in Iceland, please feel free to share this call for candidates.

We are looking for a number of medium and long-term volunteers.  Please note that these projects are self-sustainable and volunteers do not receive any support from EVS / the Youth in Action Programme.

If you are already a beneficiary of a grant like for example Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, Civic Service or part of a funded scheme, please let us know as well; as this may increase the chances of being selected.

To know more about the different positions and the projects details, please go to the following 2 links s:

http://www.seeds.is/files/2012/2012-05-seeds-iceland-ltv-opportunities.pdf
http://www.seeds.is/files/2012/2012-05-seeds-iceland-mtv-opportunities.pdf


Do not hesitate to contact us in case of questions or comments. Warm regards,

Anna, Célia, Kaelene, Ingibjörg, Lucia, Sonja, Valdís, Dāvis, Emanuele & Oscar
SEEDS Iceland – 2012 Office Team

SEEDS – Sjálfboðaliðar umhverfis landið
Grettisgata 3a
101 Reykjavík
Ísland
www.seeds.is
www.facebook.com/seedsiceland
www.facebook.com/volunteer.workcamps.iceland
Ph: +354-8456178

Posted by: neilh10 | May 7, 2012

Europe’s Ex-Best Kept Secret?

The latest editorial from the GRAPEVINE articulates very well the sense that many of us have that Iceland is losing a lot of what makes it special. To quote Anna:

Iceland has changed over the last decade. Only ten years ago you could have called Iceland one of Europe’s best kept secrets. It was exotic, untouched, foreign to most people who might have been able to tell you that Iceland is green and Greenland is icy or perhaps that they knew Björk was Icelandic.

She continues

Iceland is becoming a bit like “Greenland Light”—a diet version of spectacular untouched, raw nature….Who knows what’ll happen in the coming decade, but let’s just hope we don’t turn all of our natural beauty into accommodation for tourists, and that we don’t destroy what makes Iceland special. We should probably enjoy our island and its unique qualities while we can.

This in turn got me thinking.

I can never work out if Iceland is really changing or I am just becoming more familliar with the country, because I travel there so much, to the point where I have definetely gone beyond being a tourist and look upon the place as home (albeit a second home). Certainly, I would say that a large part of the ‘problem’ of increased tourism is percieved rather than actual. Looking at the governments own statistics, the actual numbers of foreign arrivals did not increase at all between 2007 (458,889) and 2010 (459,252), although there is a sharp increase in 2011 (540,824), a year on year increase of 15%, which is likely set to continue this year given the increasing capacity of flights in to the country. A notable rise, that builds on earlier growth (in 2002 there were only 308,768) but perhaps not as dramatic as everyone seems to be making out.

But for reasons I will try and explain, perception is important. Whenever I talk to people back in the UK I find it very difficult to explain what is exactly the attraction of the country. Much of Iceland is a moon like mountainous terrain, interspersed with sea and tiny villages with quirky, painted houses. There isn’t much to do, except talk and drink coffee. The weather is totally unpredictable, and by far the majority of days are cloudy with varying degrees of dullness. When the weather is good, it is really beautiful, but – as I have learned – days like these are rare and unpredictable – you can never depend on them. The real attraction of the country is that it is so different, a ‘retreat’, if you like, from the insanity of life here in most of the rest of the world. If you are looking for activities, you probably wont find them here in Iceland, not reliably so, in any case. And, as soon as too many tourists arrive, the country gets crowded and the initial attraction – the mystery and the ‘retreat’ element, is lost. It just becomes a load of rocks in the middle of nowhere, swampted with tourists and with catastrophic weather.

And the question also arises of the perception Icelanders have towards tourists. Traditionally, the tourists have primarily a source of humour as they exist in their own colourful bubble, fascinated by unremarkable things, and purchasing ironic and ridiculous souveniers, like toy puffins. They provide a small and relatively insignificant amount of employment which keeps high school students occupied during their summer vacations, some of whom go on to become freelancers who supplement their income by working well in to their twenties and thirties as tour guides and manning hotel reception desks. For the most part, the actual tourists understand very little about the country they are in, but they tend to leave happy and with some interesting experiences, in any case.

Personally, I think that a big part of the problem is not so much that there are more tourists – it is that the tourists that do arrive have higher expectations. They don’t want to be part of a raincoated icelandair tour group, they are very familliar with navigating their way around the world with their lonely planet guides. They want to see the country for themselves. They are also used to booking things up on the internet and want to get the best price possible, indeed the whole trip will have been ‘costed out’ and will be carefully budgetted. The visit is seen as a transaction of sorts, they arrive with certain things that they want to get, and Iceland will ultimately be judged on how well it delivers. Volcano’s, thermal baths, the northern lights…. possibly an autograph from Sigur ros and a visit to a phallogical exhibition thrown in.

Ultimately, my sense is that poor old Iceland will eventually lose, in this ridiculous game. Once the initial mystique is killed off (and this will happen very soon), people will realise that the country isn’t ready for tourism, and it is only a matter of time before the TNT editorials that urge people to visit Iceland before everyone else does will be replaced with musings about how the weather is terrible and how you’ll get ripped off by the taxi drivers, complaints about how the northern lights tours won’t refund you when the lights don’t come out, and high profile lawsuits following on from the inevitable injuries and deaths caused by the tempremental nature of the land and the absence of ‘danger’ signs. I can see it all playing out in a completely predictable way. The travel articles will change their focus to Greenland (for outdoor adventures) or Norway or Sweden (for a better value, more predictable experience).

I can’t really see any way out of this dilemma, other than just to content yourself with the fact that, assuming things eventually die down and the tourist numbers tail off, Iceland will be exactly the same place as it was before, albeit with better flight connections, a few more hotels and a more organised and commercially focussed travel industry. There are far worse things that could have happened to the country. There will still be beautiful spots where it is possible to get away from it all, and Flateyri will be one of them.  

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