That darn Eyja. Fjallajokull, that is. It seems the volcano has managed to drive away one of Iceland's most promising sources of income: tourists. Scared away by images of exhausted passengers sleeping in overcrowded airports while volcanic ash clouds effectively grounded European airlines for days, prospective travelers to Iceland have canceled their plans in droves.
According to the Icelandic Tourist Board, tourist arrivals to the country dropped by 22% in April. If the trend continues, the number of foreign travelers to Iceland could decline by more than 100,000 in 2010.
The Icelandic tourism authorities have switched into crisis mode and earlier this month jumpstarted a campaign to introduce the positive wonders of Iceland to the world with a website, www.inspiredbyiceland.com, which has several hi-def live webcam feeds of Iceland and stories from celebrities and tourists about the country.
It's coming to get you: Drivers escape the smoke and ash rising up from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. AFP/Getty Images
It is too early to say whether the effort will produce results, but truth be told, there probably has never been a better time to visit the country than now, for a few different reasons.
The exchange rate is quite favorable; the dollar is worth about 130 ISK compared to 50 or 60 ISK just a couple of years ago, and while that doesn't exactly make things cheap, it certainly puts prices in the range of quite manageable.
The weather has been absolutely wonderful this summer, sunny with temperatures ranging from warm to toasty to positively hot! In fact, a number of times I've found myself driving in downtown Reykjavik with the air-conditioning -- a commodity I've never before thought of using while driving in Iceland -- on full blast.
Then there is the nation's mood, which seems to have changed, and surprisingly, for the better. Awful as the economic collapse and the ensuing kreppa has been, it sometimes seemed that the national disposition was characterized by a certain arrogance back when Icelanders thought their bankers were the omniscient superlords of the universe. But the realization that Iceland is simply a nation among nations, not some ideal uberstate with a lesson to teach the rest of the world, seems to have manifested itself in a humbler, happier, and a more pleasant people. (Yes, we are furious, but our rage is reserved for the band of thieves, liars, and cheats in our political and financial classes.)
And then the classic reasons to visit Iceland -- the truly wild outdoors. The country's awe-inspiring nature in its raw force and breath-taking beauty; the fishing in the country's pristine rivers, and the midnight sun's rose-hued nights...
But I believe the world has yet to discover an important part of Iceland's allure -- its food. In fact, Icelanders themselves seem to have only recently begun to realize that their traditional foods -- lamb and fish -- and food traditions might be something of great value.
Ever since I was editor-in-chief -- twenty years ago -- of what was then the country's only food magazine, I've been wildly enthusiastic about promoting these gastronomic delicacies, and of course cooking them for my American friends, whose reaction upon tasting a roasted rack of Icelandic lamb or a paper thin slice of the smoked salmon is invariably like that of the late William Garry, the very talented and wise editor of Bon Appetit magazine: "Vow! Where did you get that?"
After our bankers' jaw-dropping stupidity and arrogance and Eyja's awe-inspiring fire-and brimstone show, now that's the kind of "vow" we could really use.