ICELAND: WHERE CARROTS COST MORE THAN LOBSTER by R J Furth
Sandy and I just spent five lovely days in Iceland, the planet’s hottest new destination. There are many reasons for Iceland’s tourist boom, in particular the fantastic scenery, clean air, and the friendliness of the people. Two things in particular make Iceland appealing: the lack of terrorism and Icelandair’s incredibly rapid expansion in North America and Europe. It is that expansion, and the resulting boom in demand, that has made Iceland one of the more expensive destinations. It is why carrots and other vegetables cost more than the seafood that is abundant in the surrounding waters. Teachers of economics have a dandy case study available.
Before finding the $22 carrot appetizer we were stunned by a $30 sweet potato main course at another restaurant. It came with garbanzo beans and carrots. I assumed there must be a hidden ingredient such as caviar or gold nuggets, but when I asked the waitress what was in the dish she replied, “sweet potato,” as if I were a dimwitted student. The same menu offered two lobster tails on toast for $20. To be fair, they weren’t actually lobster, but rather the much smaller langoustine. Being near the Arctic Circle, Iceland has a very short growing season and must import most of its vegetables and fruit. As an island whose chief economic activity is fishing, seafood is relatively cheap. I say relatively because everything is expensive. We had bowls of Vietnamese pho that cost $25 each in a simple restaurant. Small hotel rooms cost in excess of $200, though hostels and B&Bs are more reasonably priced. This is classic supply and demand at work.
I did some research to figure out what led to the tourist boom and how it led to such inflated prices. The answer was simple. Icelandair has been on a massive expansion program, doubling its routes in five years. The now have direct flights to 16 destinations in North America and 28 in Europe. Flights are cheaper than many airlines, and all flights go through Reykjavik. There is no extra charge for a layover, so travelers are encouraged to spend time in the country. Whereas it is apparently easy to add flights, it is far more difficult to add hotel rooms and restaurants, and also difficult to increase the supply of fresh produce, though I expect the construction of massive greenhouses if the cost of carrots remains high.
Except for the high prices, I only have praise for Iceland. Roads are good, everybody speaks English and the people are friendly. As in so many other countries, small breweries are cranking out excellent beer, and burgers and hot dogs are popular. For those with exotic tastes you can find menus loaded with smoked puffin, minke whale (not an endangered species) and reindeer. We enjoyed lovely coastal hikes and spent a morning watching humpback whales swim and dive. There are hot springs throughout the island and all homes and commercial buildings are heated by natural hot mineral water. (When you turn on the taps the water smells of egg, though it is safe to drink.) And as stated earlier, there are yet to be any terrorist attacks, which is why tourism is way down in France and way up in Iceland. (Except for tourists, there are few minorities, and I saw no mosques.)
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Iceland as a cultural experience. It is a Scandinavian culture based on Viking settlers and has a few small museums of interest. The draw to Iceland, and it is a huge draw, is nature. If you enjoy hiking, hot springs, seeing the Northern Lights, lovely vistas, whale watching and similar outdoor activities, Iceland is a gem. If you want to eat at Icelandic restaurants, however, be prepared to pay exorbitant prices. Our son Alan spent the past week there and has bought most of his food at supermarkets. He has struggled to find cheap accommodations as the many budget travelers are competing for a limited number of inexpensive beds. Prices will eventually fall, though with the fall will come more tourists, leading to traffic and larger crowds at the main tourist spots. As is true of so many beautiful places, the magic will fade as ever larger crowds arrive.