Summer feels like a good time to admit something that’s a sore spot for me. Unlike many other Americans of my generation, I am not very well traveled. Especially in the age of Instagram and what seems like thousands of bloggers who make travel a lifestyle and somehow pay their bills while frolicking in the azure surf of Greece, the Philippines, or Cuba, I feel cowardly, cash-strapped, and decidedly unhip.
It’s not that I don’t want to travel or never have. I’ve got some stamps on the ol’ passport. If I had more money, better health, and a less demanding work schedule, I’d book a trip tomorrow. I have never been to Europe, unless you count years hustling through Heathrow between New York and Johannesburg. I have never been further south than Curaçao and Aruba (where I got a terrible sunburn despite applying SPF 50 every hour—apparently the Equator and I aren’t friends). Even in Canada, I’ve never gotten further than Niagara Falls. Asia or Australia? Nope.
And here’s the real kicker: I have never been to Iceland.
The 0.2 percent
It’s embarrassing. I feel like the last millennial on earth who hasn’t booked a flight to Reykjavik. (I just Googled that because I wasn’t sure how to spell it, and now the Internet will be serving me ads for Iceland airfares until the end of time, making everything worse).
Tourism in Iceland has boomed over the last decade, helping pull this small country’s economy out of a fiscal crisis. According to the Icelandic Tourist Board, 2,227,277 people visited Iceland from abroad in the last 12 months. Eighty-seven percent of them were vacationing. And no one goes to Iceland nearly as much as Americans: we made up about 700,000 of the visitors in that period. That’s a little more than 0.2 percent of the entire US population.
If all goes well for Iceland, its population might top 340,000 by 2020. Somehow, almost 2 million more people went to Iceland within the last year than actually live in Iceland. For an interesting comparison, our National Travel and Tourism Office says that 79.6 million people from abroad visited the US in 2018. That’s a lot more than the number of people who visited Iceland, but look at that as a percentage of the population.
Last year, the number of foreign travelers welcomed by the US was roughly equivalent to 24 percent of our total population—impressive, right? Meanwhile, over the last year, Iceland hosted more than 650 percent of its total population. Somehow, I didn’t make the cut.
Pictures of Iceland
I honestly don’t know a lot about Iceland, besides my terrible lust to keep up with my friends by going there. I rely on everyone else’s stories and photos. You can see the Aurora Borealis from Iceland. It’s dotted with bubbling geologic features: a misty place with steamy bodies of water where you can become a sleek silhouette in neon-peach sunsets. Various friendly, shaggy animals, like sheep and ponies, roam the countryside. You can climb glaciers that are somehow snowy but also an eerie, milky electric blue. Iceland’s national dish is a giant shark that’s been fermenting for several months. And there's something about big hot dogs.
I almost wish I was there right now.
Almost. Because there might be someplace better.
There are no geysers, glaciers, no Northern Lights. But on a perfect July day on the Jersey shore, the ocean is a glassy turquoise-green, and if it feels a little chilly, the waves smack you anyway until you’re pleasantly cool under the sun. If you stay in the breakers, the water pulls at your waist one moment and then heaves up to your neck the next—keep your feet on the sand, too deep to see, and hope you don’t hit a crab down there. Sunblock stings your eye.
Do you know how to catch a wave with your body or a Styrofoam boogie-board tethered to a sodden Velcro bracelet strapped around your wrist? How you poise yourself facing the beach with your neck craning back at the waves? The moment when you grab the perfect foamy crest just before it crashes, and bump and glide all the way to the sand?
When you let the waves beat you back in for good, your body is heavy as you splash out of the shallows. Saltwater runs down your limbs, and if you turn your head, your ears sound like a sweater sleeve accidentally hitting a live microphone. You have to whip your head down and to the side until the water leaks out with a warm crackle only you can hear. Reach your beach towel baked in the sun and bury your face in the old terrycloth. Bliss.
I don’t know how many people head down the shore each summer, but I’m always one of them. I’ll never be a 1-percenter—especially as long as I’m an arts journalist. And I may never be a 0.2-percenter flying to Iceland. But I've got a good thing going at home.