A New Tourism Concept for Iceland
financial players. Then caldera Eyjafjallajokul started spewing out ash at a pace that shut down airports across Europe and had stranded travelers cursing the name of that blasted ice-covered volcano (if they could figure out how to pronounce it). Now, non-profit, grass roots organization Vatnavinir ("Friends of Water") is aiming to give Iceland's tourism economy a boost with a concentrated wellness initiative based on the salubrious waters of Iceland and the unique Icelandic cultural tradition of outdoor bathing. Travelers have always gone to Iceland with the intention of sharing a natural hot tub with strangers. 70% of foreign visitors to the country, as well as 50% of natives, stop to bathe in natural pools for rejuvenation and refreshment while traveling through the interior highlands. Iceland itself has a long history of bathing in the abundance of geothermal pools that dot the landscape. The country is one of the world's "hot spots" in that it's located on the edge of the Arctic Circle and is essentially one big volcano. Geothermal bathing in Iceland goes back to the 9th century AD, when the island was first settled. 12th century Icelandic mythographer and poet Snorri Sturluson used to bathe in an ancient pool near his home, which you can still visit (and use) today. Other ancient pools are being discovered all the time with the current count being 13 in all and 4 being accessible to the public. For Icelanders, personal health is inexorably connected to the natural world. This is the concept that Vatnavinir is using to promote the country as a paragon of wellness tourism. Formed by a group of like-minded architects, designers, and philosophers, Vatnavinir's goal is to position Iceland as a health-tourism hot spot with a series of eco-friendly, small, sustainable water-therapy treatment centers located around the country that will be distinct from large, developed geothermal spas like the famous Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik, which is visited by more than 400,000 people per year. The idea is for tourists to make their own way across Iceland by visiting these networked centers, each of which will offer unique services based on the environmental surroundings. Vatnavinir identifies 3 types of wellness centers of varying sizes in 3 distinct environs (urban, rural, remote). There will also be organized educational events and outdoor activities that will introduce foreigners to the Icelandic conception of holistic health. As Vatnavinir architect Olga Gudrún Sigfúsdóttir told Monocle Magazine, "None of these pools will be developed on the scale of the Blue Lagoon. These communities are isolated, uninhabited, and we want to promote isolation and nature." On their elegant website, Vatnavinir turns the network of Iceland waters (rivers, glaciers, springs, and lakes) into a symbolic representation of Yggdrasil – the tree of life in Norse mythology – as well as a prospective map to their conception of Iceland as a "wellness country" where tourists can go with the specific intention of improving their health. Vatnavinir's mission statement thoughtfully delineates the aims of their organization, bringing together the three essential elements of their philosophy: economic revitalization, the formation of socio-economic alliances within Iceland, and long-term sustainability for the natural beauty of the landscape. Though the project is still in its relative infancy, Vatnavinir has already gained significant recognition for their efforts. They were awarded the 2011 Global Award for Sustainable Architecture from the LOCUS Foundation. Plans on their website reveal a sophisticated and sensitive understanding of the environment, the need for open dialogue between Icelandic communities, and the extraordinary and untapped benefits of water itself. Each proposed center is given a theme that is harmonious with the natural surroundings and character of the area – "Seaweed and Comfort " in Reykhólar, "Water and Feasting" in Reykjanes, and "On the Edge of the World" in Laugaland, to name a few.