Monday, 20 June 2016

Iceland, some small observations about geography, farming, tourism, trade.

Here in Iceland we are very close to the Arctic Circle. 
We were almost on the Arctic circle at Isafjordur. 
Apart from the small island of Grimsey, Iceland is just south of the Arctic circle.
It is amazing to see extensive farming so far north. A major influence on the climate here is the Gulf Stream which is a complicated system of sea currents, temperature differentials and winds that brings warmth to Iceland and to other northern Atlantic places.

We will cross the Arctic circle in Norway on our way to Nordkapp.

We have enjoyed the pleasures of 24 hour sunlight a couple of  times on our other adventures.
When we crossed the Arctic circle in Alaska in 2012 with Ken and Shirley as rode to Prudhoe Bay, 
And last year when we crossed the Antarctic Circle in a cruise ship.
There was no evidence of any agriculture in either of those places!

Farming in Iceland is mainly pastoral. Mainly sheep and horses with some cattle. The livestock are grass fed in the summer. In  the winter are housed in barns. We have seen extensive stockpiles of baleage, and also sacks of feed pellets. 
Farming and fishing were the main occupations. The  two world wars saw a huge increase in the income of farmers who until Ww1 were essentially crofters. The increase in farm income from wool coupled with other economic changes ... For example to presence of US military for years through the Cold War, brought a desire for more independence from Denmark which had a tight control over trade. 
Independence from Denmark came in 1944 and is proudly celebrated annually.  
There was alcohol prohibiton from 1915. Beer continued to be banned until 1989.  There is a suggestion that the ban was linked to anti Danish sentiments.  Now there are a number of local beers being produced.

Tourism has become very important in Iceland. 
From 200,000 tourists ten years ago the projection for this year is 1.5million - almost five times the population which is 332,000. In New Zealand we have also experienced a rapid increase in tourist numbers.  But to have the equivalent ratio of tourists to population NZ would have 20 million tourists in a year. Given that the main tourist season in 1 June to 31 August in Iceland then the impact  and demands of tourism is very high. 

Iceland has become more accessible.
Ten years ago two airlines served Iceland. Both were national airlines. Now 25 airlines service Iceland. Air fares have dropped; more people are including short stopovers on their flights from North America to Europe. Iceland is only 2-3 hours flying time from Europe. 

How is Iceland coping? We have come early in the season and are able to get accommodation. We are travelling the routes less travelled, too. 
Some of the places we have stayed have been recently repurposed buildings. For example in Akureyri we are staying at the Centrum which used to be the the telephone exchange building. In Laugerbakki the hotel had been a school.  
As is happening in NZ  many young folk from other countries are working in the hospitality industry. Many hotel staff are from Europe - for example people from Romania, Polish, Spanish, Portugal.  
We have also noted that there is a very high standard of cleanliness and public facilities are modern and clean everywhere.

What about the global financial crisis?
Icelandic banks bloated with debt failed  in 2008 during the global financial crisis.
Unlike other countries the government refused to bail out the banks with tax payers' money. The government chose to make social welfare the focus. The IMF provided a US$2.1bn loan and the Scandanavian countries  a US$3bn bailout. The bank creditors hope to recoup their losses one day.

Iceland is not a member of the EU. But is a member of the European Free Trade Association and part of the European Economic Area.

About the food...
The fish is fresh and delicious wherever we have been. 
Vegetables and fruit (apart from berries) are mostly imported. Fruit served at breakfast is usually cut up into small pieces, even the bananas and oranges. Sliced tomatoes and cucumber  are often on the breakfast buffet, along with a couple of choices of muesli, boiled eggs, cold cuts and picked herrings and lovely breads including dense local grain bread. Barley is grown in Iceland. It is used to make the beer and also for barley salads. Seafood soup is almost always on the lunch menu. 
There are no McDonalds restaurants  in Iceland. There were three. The last one closed in 2009. The cost of imported ingredients became prohibitive after the Krona fell in value. There are impressive local hamburger outlets in most gas stations. Reindeer hamburgers are on the menu, too.
The national fast food is the pylsur - the hot dog with chopped fresh and fried onions, mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard.
Fish and chips are available in lots of places. 

Some miscellaneous information...
Home heating costs are low. Geothermal hot water is reticlated in towns and villages and is used to heat homes and for hot water use. The shower water sometimes has a hint of sulphide. Hot water is reticulated under streets, bridges and footpaths.  The drinking water is potable everywhere. There is no need to buy bottled water.

Roads are good. Even the gravel roads are in good repair. The signage is excellent. Most bridges are one lane. The signs clearly show that the road is narrowing to one lane for 200m on either side of the bridge so people have already slowed down before they get to the bridge. Drivers are polite and let each other cross. 

Everything is understated. 
We haven't seen any billboards. 
We all know that there is a Presidential election in the USA. 
There is also an election for president next week in Iceland. 
There are  no election bill boards anywhere. I asked someone how people decided who to vote for. He said that there was a lot of polling going on. I still don't know how the policy gets publicised. Maybe people know more about each other in a small country.
The election for government will be held in two months.

Art and design matter here...
Wonderful sculpture in public places. Bronzes, stainless steel, Corten steel,.
Colourful stylish murals on walls.
Picturesque white farm buildings with either red, blue or occasionally green roofs.
Museums which proudly tell the stories of Icelandic people - and display the artefacts.
Books shops are wonderful. Icelandic, Nordic, international authors. Coffee, too.  I am reading The Independent People by Halidor Laxness. the 1955 Nobel literature laureate.
Interesting church and public building architecture.

People are polite everywhere. 
Even when watching the World Cup football game Iceland:Hungary in the public square in Akureyri yesterday. There was polite clapping for good play by either side. Disappointment with the own goal though. It is amazing that a country with such a small population can field a World Cup Football team. Around 10,000 Icelanders have gome to France for the World Cup. They are referred to here as the Blue Ocean.

All the locals we have talked to have spoken excellent conversational English  and they seem to effortlessly switch from Icelandic to English. Children learn Danish, English and Icelandic. English seems to be retained more than Danish. 

Lush farmlands on the coast are common.  Well maintained fields and farm buildings are typical.

Commercial fishing is hugely important. COd wars with England ended with the establishment of the 200nm (370km) exclusive fishery zone.
Team kiwi crossed the Arctic Cirlce in Alaka in 2012. No farming beyond Fairbanks many 100's km south.
The arctic tundra in Alaska. Permafrost limits growth.

Seals, penguins and tourists inhabit the Antarctic polar regions. 

Sushi at Rub23 in Akureryi.
Good food, especiall seafood has been a highlight of our time in Iceland.

Arctic char, salmon, scallop, prawn, scampi, cod, mashed sweet potato and salad. Cooked with different rubs - eg herb rub on the cod.



National Pride...

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