Cultural tourism in Iceland

I just finished writing a chapter of my dissertation, which resulted in a much larger discussion of cultural tourism in Iceland than I had intended.

But the fact is, this is an issue I have been extremely interested and concerned about for at least 15 years, if not 20. I have never, ever liked the way Iceland is marketed to tourists in the U.S. Everything from the unspoiled nature to the crazy city life in Reykavik. It has always left the part of Iceland I loved--the simple joy of being in a relaxing and lovely place with my family--completely out of the picture.

In 2001, I went to Hvollsvöllur to examine the Saga Centre as part of a study commissioned by the National Park's service to look into cultural landscapes as heritage tourism. I thought that endeavor might represent a change in how Iceland was presented to tourists. But in the last 10 years, and especially while working at Vikingaheimar, and at meetings with the Saga Trails Association, I came to see just how completely the marketing mechanism of Iceland Excursion and Icelandair work against genuine cultural tourism in Iceland.

It is an absolute shame in my opinion that the cultural ministry of Iceland has not done much much much more to amend this situation. They seem perfectly content to let the foreign perception of Iceland be radically off kilter. It is as if they have never read any of the anthropological literature that demonstrates how detrimental such a disjuncture can be for the local population. Because what foreigners think of Iceland comes to influence what Icelanders think of themselves.

Last September I was at a conference in Reykjavík where a small group of professionals, including myself, talked about the use of the term "Viking" in Icelandic history, tourism, and archaeology. The audience was primarily workers in the cultural tourism industry in Iceland, and the discussion at the end was almost heartbreaking. The people running the centers out in the countryside that the intellectuals in Reykjavík find so unacceptable were literally begging for cooperation, for shared knowledge, for discussion, for--simply put--help. If anyone is looking for a project to do, something that would actually make a difference, there you go.

But instead the Penis Museum gets all the attention, and everything else gets ignored.


Lissy said…
The tours that used to be offered at the Saga Centre got discontinued, by the way, not because there was not enough interest, but because there were not enough guides. This is because the younger generation is already convinced that knowing the local stories about Njal and Gunnar is not cool, or valued by their society. There needs to be a serious initiative to train young local guides in cultural heritage all over Iceland.
Anonymous said…
Very good points - thanks!
Þórdís Bachmann said…
Fyrst Pester a Beauty Queen - svo Penis Museum. Skrifaði um þetta í ritgerðinni: Imynd Islands og imyndun, sjá, undir þjoðfræði.
Þetta er nebblega alveg rétt séð hjá þér.
beztu kveðjur
Anonymous said…
Skynsamlega skrifað og góð hvatning. Ísland hefur líklega alla tíð verið "cororate destination" Það þýðir að hagsmunir Icelandair eru hagsmunir Íslands og ekki gerður greinarmunur þar á.

Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson
Gisli said…
Þetta er mjög gott innlegg í umræðuna og þarf að fara sem víðast.
haraldur said…
En það eru til frábærir þættir í íslenskri ferðaþjónustu, sem kynna menningu á jákvæðan og metnaðarfullan hátt. Ég vil einmitt benda á Eldfjallasafn í Stykkishólmi í því sambandi, sjá hér:
Lissy said…

My point was not that there are not good and worthy efforts taking place all over Iceland, but that none of them get the sort of support they deserve as institutions honoring Iceland's rich history, folklore, and culture. Instead they are judged as businesses, with a focus on how well they make money. In the U.S., museums and cultural centers have a much different purpose, and are almost always publicly supported at either the city, county, state, or federal level.
Lissy said…
Tómas Ingi Ulrich, former Cultural Minister, once commissioned a report (came out in 2002 if I remember right) discussing how Iceland could promote its history and culture, but that report was entirely focused on promoting the (rather odd) idea that what needed to be done was to build a shrine to Flateyjarbók in Reykjavík and promote it as the "must see" for any traveler to Iceland.
Anonymous said…
...Iceland Excursions?
Anonymous said…
Are you referring to Iceland Excursions (coach sightseeing + day tours) in this blog post, or Iceland Express, the travel agency/airline) ...?
Lissy said…
I am referring to Iceland Excursion, the bus tour operators. As the largest tour operators in Iceland, they have enormous influence over what visitors experience and understand about Icelandic history and culture. But they are also a private company, with specific business concerns. I can therefore perfectly understand why they choose to stop their busses at free "natural wonders" of Iceland, rather than stopping at cultural centers where there is an admissions charge.

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