SKAFTAFELL NATIONAL PARK, East Iceland — Did you get to see the volcano?
It’s the first question people ask when I tell them I’ve just been to Iceland. Everyone, it seems, is fascinated by Eyjafjallajokull and its ash-spewing cloud.
And while many international travelers have griped about volcano-related upheavals, here in Iceland, there’s a strong sense that the eruption is a cause for celebration.
"We’re on everyone’s minds these days,” said tourism expert Arnar Mar Olafsson, from the driver’s seat of his Land Rover Defender, as we head eastbound out of the main city of Reykjavik, toward Eyjafjallajokull. "People all over the world are fascinated by this," he said with a smile.
Internet images of the eruption are among the most viewed in years, and on eBay, vials of the ash are selling like hot cakes.
And now, with the eyes of the world on them, Olafsson and other tourism boosters in this tiny country of 300,000 people are scrambling to channel this interest into visits. Some say it is already happening.
Arnar Olafsson stands at the edge of a glacier at Skaftafell National Park. (Christine McConville/GlobalPost)
Michael Raucheisen, Icelandair’s marketing director for the Americas, said this summer’s flights are completely booked. Many of the visitors, he said, want to take day trips to the volcano. "In Reykjavik, they can’t keep up with the demand,” Olafsson said, adding that he hasn’t had any summer cancellations at his adventure travel company Icelandic Mountain Guides.
But, he acknowledges, new bookings are way down. "People who only have time for a week holiday don’t want to have their flights cancelled,” said Olafsson, who used to teach classes on the business of tourism at Iceland’s University of Akureyri. “If you are traveling with family or have to get back to work, there’s just too much uncertainty right now.”
We are two hours away from the Reykjavik, when we roll to a stop at the front gates of Thorvaldseyri farm. It’s off of the national road on the eastern part of the island.
There’s a well-worn parking area where about 30 people are gathered. Some carry cameras and video records, others binoculars. A few have tiny glass vials that they’ll later fill with the very fine, midnight black volcanic ash.
We’re about 9 kilometers from the actual eruption, and the ash looks like a puffy white cloud, except it is black, and moving fast. In April, Eyjafjallajokull spewed about 750 tons of ash each second.
By the time I’m there, the rate of discharge has dropped to about 200 tons a second.
The air is filled with the tinkling sound of very fine glass breaking. "That’s the volcano,” Olaffson said.
Despite the awe-struck crowd at the farm, American travel expert Thomas Tait isn’t convinced that the eruption will be enough to make Iceland a traveler’s mecca.
Some people, he said, “will venture to Iceland to see the volcano firsthand, as was the case at Mt. St. Helens and Volcano National Park in Hawaii.” But for most people, Iceland is too far to travel. And because it is not on a trade route, it can be difficult to get to, he added.
In 2008, as part of the global economic meltdown, Iceland’s leadership declared a nationwide bankruptcy. The country’s currency lost 44 percent of its value.
Even today, the outskirts of the city are filled with half-built, now-abandoned housing complexes, and reports of bankers being charged with fraud dominate the headlines.
There is a small silver lining in the economic despair: Iceland became a very real option for price-conscious travelers.
Those trips to the curative waters of the Blue Lagoon were suddenly half price. Scores of nature lovers started making trips to see the Northern Lights, the geysers and the waterfalls. Golfers delighted in outdoor games that lasted until midnight, thanks to the country’s 20-hour summer days.
More recently, the island has been promoting its all-local, all-organic foods. The salmon is the freshest I’ve ever tasted, and most of the produce is grown in local greenhouses, which are powered by the hot water that the government pulls out from a mile below the the rocky earth.
But all that came to a halt in April, when the volcano erupted. Now, Olaffsson and his peers are hoping that, by this fall, travel to Iceland will have taken off like never before.
By then, he predicts, that fine black ash will give way to red-hot lava rocks, that will spurt out of the rock and tumble down the mountains and create new, gorgeous lava fields that will be ripe for exploring.
“A lava tour would be great,” he said as we pulled away from the farm, and drove past a British television crew, unloading their gear.
Christine McConville is a Boston-based journalist who writes about business and travel.