The Quirky Charms Of Iceland

With Martha Chapman

Casinos? Nope. Amusement parks? Zero. Mega-shopping malls? None. 

Iceland has other charms and attractions that many clients are looking for in a holiday: Nature, pure and uncontrived. Nordic charm and hospitality by the bucketful. And a splendid - if at times amusingly peculiar - culture. 

María Björk Gunnarsdóttir and Thorleifur Thos Jonsson of Promote Iceland

This is what travel agents in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal are learning this week as a team of Icelandic tourism pros visit to train, inform, and clarify.

First, some of the misconceptions. Iceland isn’t icy. Well not especially: 10% of the country is glaciers but the winters average just 0°C, and what snow there is in winter rarely lasts. Summer daytime temperatures average about 15°C. 

Christina Annese of Icelandair bringing agents up to date

Aerial photography of the country shows vast swathes of green and the spectacular mountains that make for all that fab photography. The jaw-dropping Northern Lights, a part of Icelandic life between September and April, may be worth the trip alone. “I see them from my window in my house,” says Ragna Vala Kjartansdóttir of tour operator Iceland Travel.

Secondly, Iceland may be even smaller than you think – it’s about twice the size of Nova Scotia. Yet with a population of just 360,000 (about the size of London, ON), Iceland has its own government, currency, language, culture and proud heritage.

So how do you increase tourism when you are a small country with a limited budget? Raising awareness is important – and Iceland chooses to enhance this with humour.  How can you not love singing karaoke in one of the world’s most jaw-breaking languages? Try here. An earlier tourism campaign featuring a lot of trolls, important in Icelandic folklore, was discontinued: “We were giving the impression we weren’t a real country.”

Once there, it’s no surprise that most visitors try to make the most of the splendid outdoor offerings. Tour companies such as Iceland Travel and Snaeland offer group and individual tours and happily customize FITs. Walking, caving, glacier hiking, snowmobiling and horseback riding are all popular. And a visit to the vast, naturally turquoise outdoor hot tub, the geothermal Blue Lagoon, is a must.  Self-drive holidays are perfect for many clients: there’s not much traffic, driving is on the right and distances are short. Just warn your clients that gas clocks in at around $2.20 per litre.

A map of Iceland showing its many attractions

Getting to Iceland is not a problem, with year-round Icelandair service to RKV from YVR, YEG and YYZ, plus summer season flights from YUL. The legendary Icelandair stopover - break your journey, in either direction, for up to 7 days at no surcharge – is hugely successful. The concept is especially popular with visitors travelling to a city in Europe not served directly from Canada, the thinking being that if you have to connect somewhere, why not make it Iceland and have a cool little vacation at the same time? Icelandair flies to over 20 cities in Europe, making this eminently doable.  

“We’ve seen a huge interest in the bleisure market,” Christina Annese of Icelandair told me, referencing the business traveller who wishes to build some vacation time into his or her itinerary. “Many will travel to Iceland with their families, have a mini-holiday, and continue on to Europe on business while the family flies back home.”

Find out more about this charming destination at

Martha Chapman

Martha Chapman Columnist

An OJ columnist since 2006, Martha is responsible for the Biting Questions features as well as special seasonal series. A travel industry lifer known to all in the biz, she frequently covers industry events for Open Jaw.

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