REYKJAVIK: With a large part of its population in France for the Euro 2016, Iceland has pretty much come to a standstill except for its tourism sector, which is booming.
Ahead of Iceland’s historic quarter-final match on Sunday against host France, estimates vary on how many Icelanders have travelled to France, ranging from 10,000 to 50,000.
Whatever the number, it’s a large part of the 330,000-strong population, depriving the North Atlantic island of a good share of its labour force.
With flights from Iceland to France fully-booked, every Icelander seems to have a story about friends’ odysseys to reach Paris: one is taking a plane to London via Berlin and catching the Eurostar, another is flying to Amsterdam and renting a car…
Fans are spending lots of time and money to join their national heroes — leaving jobs at home unattended.
But football fever has not affected the tourism sector, in peak season now.
Foreign visitors continue to flood to the island, drawn by the awe-inspiring nature that resembles a lunar landscape with its black lava fields, impressive ready-to-blow volcanoes and mythical geysers.
“We’re a small company with 15 employees, and six have left for France. So we’re managing, we’re dealing with it. It’s the same for a lot of people,” a French travel agent in Reykjavik, Sebastien Tranchand, told AFP.
Foreigners who booked trips here long before the Euro 2016 are thrilled to arrive at this serendipitous moment, enjoying the upbeat mood and party atmosphere.
“There’s an interest from tourists in football. Particularly men, who ask questions. But it’s small talk, they (really) came for the Icelandic nature,” said Anna Karolina Gestsdottir of tourism company Around Iceland.
“I’m not sure that we’ve had more tourists thanks to the Euro. June-July is a busy time anyway. Everything is fully booked,” she said.
Whale watching as consolation
The tourism industry is omnipresent in Iceland. In central Reykjavik, you get the impression its the only industry in town, with little Icelandic heard on the streets in this early summer period.
View galleryTwo British tourists pose with a beer in Reykjavik …
Two British tourists pose with a beer in Reykjavik on July 1, 2016 (AFP Photo/Karl Petersson)
Over the years, apartments have increasingly been converted into more-profitable apartment hotels, to the dismay of young Icelanders who don’t own their own homes.
In the future, Iceland’s new football fame may draw even more tourists.
International media outlets have rarely written as much about the country as now, and photos of its enthusiastic players and fans are turning into great publicity.
“People don’t know Iceland. For them it’s a distant place in the middle of the Arctic — and that’s what they’re looking for,” said Sebastien Tranchand.
“This will not bring us fewer tourists, that’s for sure,” said tour guide Ivar Hauksson who watched Iceland eliminate Austria from the Euros with Austrian tourists.
Iceland beat Austria 2-1 in extra time and “it was a little tense.”
A company that organises whale watching tours in the Atlantic even took advantage of the football frenzy to do a little free advertising: it offered English players free tickets as a consolation prize if they were to lose to Iceland.
And lose they did, defeated 2-1 in the last 16. But none of the England players have taken up the whale watching offer yet.
“They are welcome anytime!” said Gudbjartur Jonsson.
The country had a record 1.3 million foreign tourists in 2015, the lion’s share from the US and Britain, compared to 1.0 million the previous year.
This year is expected to be another record year, with an increase of 30 percent forecast.
Some wonder whether the rising numbers of tourists is sustainable for the island’s pristine ecosystem. But that’s an issue Icelandic footballers only see from afar — they all play abroad.