Iceland had 2.3 million visitors in 2018, according to the Rejkjavik Grapevine, a prevalent Icelandic tourist magazine. With about 338,000 people living in Iceland, the number of tourists makes up nearly seven times the country’s population. But after Iceland’s ultra low-cost airline, WOW air, went bankrupt at the end of March, many predict Icelandic tourism will be on the decline.
Several Hillsdale students, including a Washington-Hillsdale Internship Program group from last year, have taken advantage of the cheap airline tickets over the years. Now some say they will have to cancel their travel plans.
Not only did WOW air provide cheap flights to Iceland, but it also offered cheap flights from the U.S. to Europe by stopping in Iceland. Senior Emma McCormick used WOW air on her first trip to Iceland and was planning on using it again for her trip to Europe this summer.
“That’s how I flew to Iceland and had bought a ticket with them round trip Detroit to Paris for May 27 through June 14,” she said. “I had a minor moment of panic and disbelief at how a company can do that. Thankfully my credit card company reimbursed me for the flight.”
WOW air had the advantage of not only being cheap, but also making stops less complicated for flights to Europe. Cheap flights to Europe can still be found, but they can be more complicated even if they do save money, as McCormick can attest to.
“I bought another ticket from Windsor, Ontario to Paris and back to Toronto. From there I’ll fly United to Bozeman, Montana,” McCormick said. “The end destination of that trip is Budapest and Croatia. Thankfully the flights didn’t interrupt our plans too much. That routing including the Bozeman leg actually worked out to be about $100 less!”
Iceland has many natural wonders. The 39,769 square miles of land contain hot springs, black sand beaches, glaciers, mountains, waterfalls, and volcanoes. According to some travel blogs, Iceland is one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth.
In 2010, volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted and made international headlines since the airspace over Iceland was closed thanks to the ash in the air. Because of the eruption, Iceland’s economy fell on hard times, and an online campaign began in which people could post their positive stories about visiting Iceland. The campaign spread across social media, and soon Iceland became a trend. The next summer after the campaign started was Iceland’s busiest tourist season yet.
With the new draw in tourism, Iceland’s government began an intense, three-year marketing campaign to grow the island’s reputation as an untouched, largely uninhabited environment for tourists to roam.
On top of all the travel publicity, Iceland has also become a popular filming spot. Movies such as “Batman Begins,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and “Thor: the Dark World” all filmed parts in Iceland. And most popularly, the HBO series “Game of Thrones” has done much of its filming in Iceland. There are now tours in Iceland totally dedicated to seeing the “Game of Thrones” sights.
Since WOW air was founded in 2011 as a low-cost carrier, it had been trying to compete with bigger, established airlines that regularly offer nonstop flights to Europe. They tried to follow the model of short-haul operations like Southwest Airlines and Ryanair Holdings, but trying to do it with long-haul operations and it was not sustainable. Now, dirt cheap flights to Iceland and Europe might be harder to find.
McCormick and senior Kayla Mykeloff went to Iceland at the end of the 2018 spring semester, before WOW air’s bankruptcy, and said they loved it.
Travel costs were cheap. Altogether, Mykeloff estimated that she spent less than $800 on the trip.
They traveled throughout the southern part of the country, famous for its numerous waterfalls and glaciers. They got to hike, see geysers and waterfall, glaciers, and see the famous black sand beach known as “Diamond Beach” for its large chunks of glaciers ice that have washed up and look like giant diamonds on the sand.
McCormick especially loved Diamond Beach and said the ice, in all its shapes, sizes, and colors, was stunning.
“But it is hard to pick a favorite, because most places we went and things we saw were truly unique and beautiful,” McCormick said.
Mykeloff said Iceland was like nothing she had ever seen and there was no place she could even compare it to.
“That country is so diverse in terms of land. So every day we saw something new and different. Its like you are on a completely different planet,” she said.
McCormick said one of the most surprising things about Iceland was the constant and drastic diversity in the scenery.
“You’d drive for less than 30 minutes and the view out the window completely changed. We’d be in farmland, then ocean coast, then Mars, then mountains, then a whiteout blizzard,” McCormick said.
It is this wild and distinctive scenery that makes Iceland such an attraction. But, McCormick did point out that it is obvious that Iceland is extremely popular for tourists right now and it shows on the landscape, which saddened her a little.
“The beauty of Iceland is in its fragile ecosystems. With so much foot traffic the landscape never gets a break. People are always walking on hiking paths, or not on paths, even in the off seasons with the land should be recuperating,” McCormick said. “It was a weird complex — feeling bad for contributing to the traffic, but also selfishly glad I went when I did and didn’t wait.”
Both Mykeloff and McCormick would love to go back and see more of the island and other spots they didn’t have time to visit.
“I definitely would like to go back and have more money to spend to do things like glacier hiking, ice cave spelunking, and go to the Blue Lagoon,” Mykeloff said. “I want to go back so badly.”