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Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Iceland in meltdown

For as long as I can remember, as a child, I wanted to visit the country of Iceland. I have no idea (that is not quite true) where this need came from, but I managed to visit for the first time at the age of nineteen, and have been back five times since. It is fascinating country, known as the land of fire and ice, that sits on the edge of several tectonic plates in the North Atlantic.

Iceland is a land of contrasts, from Reykjavik in the south to Myvatn in the north, which in the summer teams with bird life of all descriptions. In the midst is the desolate and windswept interior, a cold and at times inhospitable mixture of glaciers, volcanic lava and sand. Iceland boasts the second longest life expectancy in the world, and the world's highest literacy rates, with more books read per capita than anywhere else in the world. It also boasts the world's highest number of mobile phones and a very large usage of credit cards, with a virtually cashless society.

My last visit was in 2001, and I had been planning to visit again this summer just past. My plans were put on hold however until next year when my own job situation was more stable. With the current crisis in worldwide banking, which judging by the newspapers today has affected Iceland particularly badly, there may never have been a better time to go.

Iceland has a reputation for being one of the most expensive countries in the world - which may be true if you insist on being ferried around in air conditioned buses and staying in five star hotels. Thankfully I have never been of that persuasion, preferring to rough it with the locals and other budget travellers in youth hostels and guest houses. Thankfully there is no shortage of these throughout the country.

As someone who is not only vegetarian but also wheat free, I also find that it helps to keep costs down and control what I eat, by self catering. There is no shortage of such facilities in Iceland either, since the country lends itself well to back packers and budget travellers in general - I have always found that you experience so much more about a country when it is experienced in this way, getting closer to every aspect of the culture and people, not to mention nature, and this is (to me at least) what Iceland is all about. I have never seen the point in cossetting oneself in luxury five star hotels owned by foreign chains, and consuming imported food and drink, but prefer to support the economy of the country that I am for all intents and purposes a guest in. Since she gives me such a warm welcome, it seems only fair.

Iceland is in a vulnerable position, since most goods have to be imported, and her residents like to live very much on the edge, and are in love with their flexible friends. Her main sources of overseas revenue are fish, wool, a few minerals, and tourism - and it is a very short tourist season at that.

In some ways it came as no surprise when last week I read in the Daily Mail that the country's third largest bank Glitnir, had like Northern Rock in the UK, been nationalised and that this was threatening several British retailers, since the company that owned the bank had a large stake in many of these chains. The crisis was worse than we thought since it seems the second largest bank, Landsbanki Island, has now followed suit, and the Icelandic government has been forced to loan £400 million to the largest bank, Kaupthing.

The Icelandic Krona fell 30 percent in just one day, and has now been pegged at 131 against the Euro as an emergency measure, with the Icelandic stock exchange banned from short selling bank shares.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Prime Minister Geir Haarde said Landsbanki's foreign operations – including Internet arm Icesave, had been separated from the domestic bank and it was likely they would be sold off. He described this as the worst crisis to hit Iceland for over a decade and added that it was "every country for itself. "

He went on to describe damage to the country's reputation as "a risk we have to take". He went on to say that the Icelandic people will almost certainly see a drop in their standard of living and the country will return to its traditional strengths in fishing rather than financial services. With dwindling fish stocks, I am somewhat less optimistic I have to say, than he is.

The Icelandic Financial Service Authority announced on its website earlier today that the country's second biggest bank, Landsbanki Island, was now in national hands, having dismissed the Board of Directors, and placed the company into receivership.

It was also announced that the country's largest bank, Kaupthing, will be given a £400 million loan from the Icelandic Central Bank, which yesterday guaranteed all savings for Icelandic customers. The bank will remain open and run as normal while these changes take place.

Meanwhile, Iceland's Financial Supervisory Authority has replaced the Board with its own Executives. Somewhat worryingly, Landsbanki's Internet banking arm, Icesave, which has thousands of British customers (many Icelanders live abroad, as they are prolific travellers) has stopped processing requests to remove money and taking on new customers.

The Icelandic Government were in emergency meetings at their headquarters in central Reykjavik on Monday night, united in a desperate measure to try and save their country's economy, so this was not a decision to be taken lightly. Mr Haarde indicated in a dramatic speech that he could not find an affordable loan from abroad that would not be disastrous for Iceland's public purse.

He warned of "chaos" if Icelandic banks stopped operating, and rushed through emergency legislative measures designed to stop the collapse of their banking system. Mr Haarde added: "A lot of the banks' business is in Britain, so it is likely that Britain might well be affected." Let's hope not. I hope he is wrong, but it strikes me that right now the Icelanders need all the help they can get.

If you like me are thinking of going (my trip will have to wait until next summer, since what holiday time I have left for this year is already booked and paid for elsewhere), then there are three airlines which fly from the UK - Icelandair, British Airways and Iceland Express. There are also several tour operators to the region, by far the best of which are Discover the World. I have travelled with this company five times before (four times to Iceland and once to Canada) and can wholeheardedly recommend them.

The country has a lot to offer, and although I have never been in the winter months, I know people who have, and they tell me it is an exhilerating and very different experience to anything else that they have known. So, what are you waiting for? Remember to leave room in your suitcase for me though - I am not very big and won't make a noise - I promise!

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