Posted by: neilh10 | March 5, 2011

Iceland off season.

One of the things I say and say again, until it tires me to death, is that Iceland has attractions all year round. The summer is great, it has the best weather, there are a lot of parties going on – but there are also a lot of tourists. In the northern Westfjords, in particular, there are only 4000 people who live in the area permanently. When you add to the mix the visiting cruise ships, depositing 800 tourists in to Isafjordur every other day, and the fact that the lonely planet has just listed the Westfjords in its list of top ten destinations around the world to visit in 2011, there is a real risk that tourism could start to destabilise the character of the area.

The worst case scenario is that the Westfjords becomes like England’s lake district. You cannot fail to be amazed by its natural beauty, even when it rains, but everywhere you look there seems to be another car full of kids. Its walking trails are littered with people in raincoats. Even cycling over Whinlatter pass becomes a traffic jam to negotiate. And I’ve not even begun to start talking about the litter, and pollution emitted from all the cars.

It hasn’t happened yet in the Westfjords, but I believe it could quite easily happen in the future. Aside from the mountains, sea and excellent fishing opportunities, the unique selling point of the Westfjords is it’s remoteness. People go there because they want to travel to ‘the very rim of the world’ (in the words of an earlier guardian article). Once ten thousand people a day start travelling to the same place in search of the ‘remoteness’ they read about in the lonely planet, the chances are that they won’t find it.

Fortunately, the geography of Iceland and its low population density (Iceland only has 317,000 inhabitants, it is about the same population as Coventry), mean that this scenario is unlikely to play out any time soon. But there is still undoubtedly a problem, whereby all the tourists pile in to the Westfjords for a period of about eight weeks, from mid-june to mid-august.

I am at a loss to understand why this is the case. Whenever I ask an Icelander, I get the usual shrug, and some mention of the weather. My theory is that the tourist season was designated by the government at the same time as they designated the school year. This way they could convert the schools in to hotels for the summer and give the schoolkids jobs to do, serving the tourists over their summer vacations. If this was the case, it was a very resourceful move at the time but now they need to urgently rethink it.

Until this rethink occurs, perhaps the best thing for you to do is just travel to Iceland and the Westfjords outside the summer season. The weather might be a little cooler, but you probably aren’t travelling to Iceland in search of blazing sunshine, right?

That is exactly what the guardian did. Writing in guardian today, Amelia Hill concludes account of her september trip around the ring road with the following words.

How wonderful it was to discover the country almost entirely on our own. It felt like we had slipped back to a pre-tourist era. At one of these places, the beauty and isolation was so intense that I found a tear trickling down my cheek.

Its a great piece of travel journalism, and it chimes in entirely with my view of the Icelandic tourist industry, and the absurdity of its concentrated summer season. And, although not on her itinerary, the Westfjords also get a mention, in the context of encouraging visitors to travel to Iceland off-season.

Entreating travellers to go out of season is a tired saw but not one usually used in relation to Iceland. More than 90% of Iceland’s tourists visit during summer. And that is not the only way they limit themselves: less than 10% stray more than an hour from Reykjavik, sticking to the well-trodden Golden Circle linking Thingvellir national park, Gullfoss, the Blue Lagoon and Geysir.

As wonderful as those sights are, it is a crying shame to miss Iceland’s more far-flung offerings: wonders like the Westfjords, with its dramatic golden beaches that boast some of the greatest concentrations of nesting cliff birds in the world.

Check out the article, and give some real consideration to an off season visit to Iceland. It will be a lot cheaper, and potentially a more rewarding experience.

Update 11/03

Simon Calder, writing yesterday in the Independent about the off season charms of north Iceland, takes a similar view.

I imagined that the average 24 hours on the brink of the Arctic at this time of year would be a study in darkness, with only a brief interlude of ghostly daylight. In fact, this is a location in which, in early March, you can watch the day stretch before your very eyes. At the start of my six-day trip, the first approximation to usable light appeared shortly before 9am, and ended by around 6.30pm; in less than a week, a 12-hour day seemed the norm. It is as though you have landed on the bright side of the Moon.

The light is another point. Most people assume that the country is in complete darkness for most of the winter – in fact, this is an exaggeraton. Even in December, there is about six hours of light every day.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: