According to recent reports, Iceland’s tourism industry is on track for a banner year in 2023, producing record highs in visitation and spending.
The reports come on the heels of a couple big years associated with the post-pandemic boom, as well as increased media attention due to the on-going volcanic eruptions on the island in 2021, 2022, and 2023.
It seems appropriate that volcanic activity is a major drive in keeping Iceland top of mind for travelers because, according to City Walk Guide Asi Gunnarsson, Iceland’s modern tourism boom first began thanks to a volcanic eruption more than a decade ago.
In 2010, the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano became a worldwide event, sending huge plumes of ash into the sky, disrupting airline routes and capturing the attention of media outlets across the globe.
“This was when the world really started paying attention to Iceland,” Gunnarsson said on his two-hour walking tour of Reykjavik.
Since then, increased marketing efforts and savvy promotions, such as the stopover program from Iceland Air, have helped to raise awareness of all Iceland has to offer.
Given the above, it would be no surprise if you or someone you know is considering a trip to Iceland. And though the volcanoes, glaciers, Northern Lights, and waterfalls are probably on your radar, there’s much context to be gained by understanding the Icelandic culture and its history on this remote island in the North Atlantic.
No one in an Icelandic family has the same last name.
Like many indigenous and native languages around the world, Icelandic is very descriptive, literal, and practical. The names of places tend to describe what the area looks like, or how it made the first settlers feel.
Reykjavik, for example, translates to “the Smoky Bay.” The name was given by the first settler of Norway, Ingólfr Arnarson, in 874, when he stood on a hill overlooking the bay and saw geothermal steam rising off its waters. You can visit that same hill today in downtown Reykjavik, where a statue of Arnarson now stands.
Family names also take an interesting turn in Icelandic culture due to this direct type of language. Unlike in North American and Europe, where children inherit the father’s last name, each child in Iceland is given a unique last name that is a combination of their father’s first name and a suffix related to their gender – “son” for men, and “dottir” for women.
It’s similar to the system in Scandinavian countries. For example, my name is William, so if I had a son, his last name would be Williamsson. If I had a daughter, her last name would be Williamsdottir. My last name would relate to my father’s name, and my wife’s name to her father’s name. Every person in a family of four has a different last name.
Today, this naming system is still used, with some modern twists here and there. Some children, for example, will take both the mother and father’s name, or a combination, before adding the suffix.
With Iceland becoming more diverse, some parts of Icelandic language and culture are at risk. So, soon-to-be parents refer to the Icelandic Naming Committee to help them choose appropriate baby names that carry on the Icelandic tradition.
Most locals come from a common ancestor, which makes social dating interesting.
If you think the dating pool is bleak where you live, consider what the Icelandic people are up against.
Modern-day Icelanders all trace back to the same small set of early settlers, who arrived with Ingólfr Arnarson from Norway in 874. Though we are now 32-some generations down the line, this close ancestral lineage means that the population is more connected, at least as compared to say, America, where people come from a variety of foreign ancestors.
This leads to some interesting dynamics when it comes to dating, because it’s not unusual to come across someone who is your 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th cousin, Gunnarsson said.
In fact, the Icelandic government even has a website to help its citizens in this regard. An online database allows Icelanders to retrace their family lineage and ensure that whoever they are dating is not closely related to them. The official government recommendation is that you not date anyone closer than your 5th cousin.
Gunnarsson jokes on his tour that most Icelanders head to this website when their date gets up to go to the bathroom. The reality, however, probably isn’t far off.
Reykjavik grew significantly during World War II.
Reykjavik was first occupied by the British during World War II, and then the Americans. While this time no doubt caused fear, stress, and headaches to the local populations (as well as some deaths to local fishermen), it also was a huge boon to the economy and aided Iceland’s capital to grow into what it is today.
According to the Reykjavik City Museum, World War II had a huge impact on Iceland in general, but especially Reykjavik, where about a third of the population lived. Keflavik Airport, the main airport of Iceland today, was built during this time by the United States, and many other local changes were observed.
“Reykjavik life was transformed during the war years,” the museum reports. “The military camps made their mark on the town, and troops were everywhere. Restaurants, shops and services flourished. Popular culture, social life and consumption were transformed by new influences and increased imports. Reykjavík grew and prospered. At the end of the war Icelanders moved into the abandoned military camps to make their homes there.”
The war had such an overall positive impact on Icelandic society that it is often referred to as the “blessed war.”
Only 1% of the landscape is forested.
Iceland’s landscape has many features to explore, including glaciers, lava fields, lakes, fjords, and rivers. But if you’re looking for trees, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Iceland once had more trees, but today, less than 1% of the island is forested. Deforestation and burning during its initial settlement by the Vikings contributed to the situation, with the island’s extreme weather and natural events (eruptions, wind, cold, etc) preventing large forests from being regrown today.
At the Skogar Museum in southern Iceland, you can learn that there was such a lack of wood for construction that settlers were forced to collect driftwood to build their houses.
Camper Vans Are a Popular Way to Explore Iceland.
In Reykjavik, where about two thirds of the Icelandic population lives, travelers have an assortment of lodging options to choose from, including small inns, boutique and chain hotels, and vacation rentals.
But once outside city limits, Iceland’s big, sprawling landscape takes over, and options become less, spread out over longer distances in small villages.
You can certainly plot out a course to stay in small lodges as you travel around Iceland in a rental car; however, many travelers choose to combine their efforts by renting a camper van.
Thanks to a myriad of campgrounds along Iceland’s Ring Road (the one and only road that goes all the way around the island), navigating is easy, as is finding a place to park and camp for the night.
With the exception of a few destinations (like New Zealand), there aren’t many countries in the world where this type of travel is so easy, organized, accessible, and permissible.
If you’re wanting to explore the far reaches of Iceland, consider renting a camper van for complete flexibility.