12 unexpected facts you probably didn’t know about Iceland

Iceland has long been known as one of the most beautiful places in the world, but over the past few years it has also come to be viewed as a rather unusual hotbed of football talent.

12 unexpected facts you probably didn't know about Iceland
Photo: duha127/Depositphotos

After making history at Euro 2016 by becoming the smallest nation to ever qualify for a major men’s tournament and then winning fans the world over in its remarkable run to the quarterfinals, Iceland’s national team went even further last fall when it clinched a berth in the FIFA World Cup. With just 330,000 inhabitants, Iceland will be the smallest nation by population to ever appear in a World Cup tournament.

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While Iceland’s football team, and its fans’ iconic Viking war clap, have brought newfound attention to this North Atlantic island nation, prowess on the pitch is just one of the many ways Icelanders make an outsized impression on the global stage.

Here are 12 other things that you might not know about Iceland:

1. Its recovery from the financial crisis has been astounding

Iceland was in many ways the poster child for the 2008 global financial crisis. The country’s three largest banks collapsed, investors pulled out of the country, the currency and home prices plummeted and businesses nationwide went bankrupt. But Iceland didn’t simply recover from those depths, it’s now thriving like never before. The gross domestic product increased by a whopping 7.2 percent in 2016, followed by 3.6 percent growth last year and private consumption is at levels not seen since before the crisis.

2. It has the best gender equality in the world

A women's march in Iceland. Photo: Creative Commons

Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for nine years running. Far from being content to rest on its laurels however, Iceland made history earlier this year when it became the first country in the world to put laws on the books to ensure equal pay.  Under the Equal Pay Standard that took effect on January 1st, companies with at least 25 full-time employees are required to analyze their pay structures for wage gaps and report that information to the government of Katrin Jakobsdottir, Iceland’s second female prime minister.

3. It is a global green energy leader

All of the electricity on Iceland’s transmission grid is produced via renewable hydro- and geothermal energy. The nation’s energy infrastructure is recognized as one of the best in the entire world and Icelandic expertise in geothermal resources is a much sought-after commodity. The international interest in geothermal expertise is no surprise given geothermal energy heats 90 percent of all houses in Iceland and produces nearly a third of all electricity.

4. It is home to an ultra-efficient fishing industry

Iceland has a seafood model that has been dubbed “The Incredible Fish Value Machine”.  The nation’s fisheries have perfected an approach to fishing that nearly eliminates waste while maximizing profits. According to an analysis by the Iceland Ocean Cluster, Icelandic fishing operations utilize at least 80 percent of each cod caught in the North Atlantic, while neighbouring countries make use of just 50 percent of each fish. The head, guts and bones that are thrown into the sea by other fishing nations are turned into profitable by-products by Iceland’s enterprising fisheries, which are aiming for 100 percent cod utilization in the near future.

Photo: DoubleV/Depositphotos

5. It is perfectly situated as a trans-Atlantic transport hub

Reykjavík’s Keflavik International Airport has more daily direct flights to North American destinations than the other Nordic countries’ capital airports combined. Twenty airlines fly to and from Keflavik and the airport’s location in the North Atlantic means that travellers can reach major hubs on the US east coast in 5-7 hours and major European cities in as little as three hours. No wonder this former US military base is expected to see 7 million annual passengers by 2020.

6. It is the coolest location for data centers (in more ways than one)

Iceland’s location isn’t just ideal for flight connections. It also makes the country a perfect place for data centres. Iceland’s cooler climate and previously-mentioned green electricity grid combine to make it the ideal location for large data centres. Throw in Iceland’s low corporate tax rate, skilled workforce and vast high-bandwidth underwater connections to both North America and Europe – with even more trans-Atlantic connections in the works – and you’ve truly got the coolest location for data centres anywhere on Earth.

7. It is about to disrupt the world’s marine industries

Having already established one of the world’s leading prosthetics companies with Össur, Össur Kristinsson has now set out to change the world of boating and shipping. Kristinsson’s ÖK Hull, built by Icelandic company Rafnar, features pioneering hull-and-keel technology that dramatically reduces wave slamming, even at top speeds. Having been shown to reduce slamming by 20 times in independent testing, the ÖK Hull provides better safety, stability and control for work and leisures vessels alike.

8. It is home to the world’s strongest men

There are only 178,980 men in all of Iceland. This makes Hafthor Julius Bjornsson’s feat all the more remarkable. What, you’ve never heard of him? Perhaps you know him better as ‘The Mountain’ from the smash hit TV series Game of Thrones. Earlier this month, Bjornsson topped all comers at the World’s Strongest Man competition. What’s more, this was hardly the first time that an Icelander staked his claim to the title. The Mountain’s countrymen Jón Páll Sigmarsson and Magnús ver Magnússon both won the contest four times.

9. Its language is crazy intimidating – but it doesn’t matter!

If you’ve ever seen a long block of Icelandic text or can recall the cringe-worthy English-language news reports on the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, you’re probably too intimidated to even attempt a simple ‘hæ’. Good news: you don’t have to. English is widely spoken throughout Iceland, particularly in Reykjavík and at the nation’s tourism hotspots. But if you do want to try ‘hæ’, go for it – it sounds exactly like ‘hi’!

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10. Its people are among the best-educated in the world

Iceland may have a small population, but it’s a very educated one. The comprehensive World's Most Literate Nations study declared Iceland the third most literate country in the world and over 40 percent of the population has a tertiary education. Despite its small size, Iceland has eight institutions of higher education that draw hundreds of students from around the world each year to take advantage of the many English-language courses.

11. It is the most peaceful place in the world

Maybe it's the gender equality or the high level of education (or maybe it's all those strong men) but Iceland has topped the Global Peace Index every year since 2008. Indeed, what's so interesting about Iceland's top rank for Societal Safety and Security is that the country is also one of the world's five least militarized countries.

Safest and least militarized? As with so much else about this volcanic gender-equal footballing nation, there's clearly a lot to be learned from Iceland.

Photo: stnazkul/Depositphotos

12. It’s a pioneer in the life sciences sector

Life sciences are thriving in Iceland and there is strong governmental support for research and innovation.

Today, the country is renowned for its work concerning human genetics and cancer research. Among other globally recognised life sciences companies established and based in the small Nordic country is ORF Genetics, a pioneering green biotech company producing growth factors and other recombinant proteins. 

Combining Iceland’s impressive academic network with its modern healthcare system, it’s a hotbed of innovation and one of the world’s most exciting centres for developments within this growing industry.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Invest in Iceland.


Geneva watch show opens in throes of Swiss banking turmoil

The Geneva watch fair opened this week buoyed by booming growth in the watchmaking industry, but insiders warily eyed the banking sector turmoil, evoking painful memories of the 2008 financial crisis.

Geneva watch show opens in throes of Swiss banking turmoil

Industry professionals were upbeat on the first day of the Watches and Wonders annual fair, where 48 prestigious brands including Rolex, Patek Philippe and Cartier were showing off their new creations.

The fair, which runs until Sunday with the weekend open to the public, kicked off after two years of record gains for Swiss watchmakers.

Exports soared by 31.2 percent in 2021, after a strong rebound in sales in the United States and the Middle East.

And the return of luxury tourism to Europe in 2022 after two years of Covid disruptions pushed exports up a further 11.4 percent to 24.8 billion Swiss francs ($27.1 billion).

The growth has also continued so far this year, with exports up by another 10.6 percent during the first two months of 2023, according to statistics from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

But optimism at the Geneva fair was somewhat dampened by the angst surrounding the turbulence currently lashing the banking sector.

Switzerland – whose vibrant banking scene is a key part of the country’s economy and culture – has been rocked to the core after the government strong-armed the nation’s biggest bank UBS into swallowing up its troubled competitor Credit Suisse, in a bid to ward off a larger global banking crisis.

READ ALSO: ‘A dark day’: How Switzerland reacted to shock UBS buyout of Credit Suisse

‘Global repercussions’

The upheaval has brought back difficult memories for Swiss watchmakers.

After the 2008 round of bank failures sparked a global financial crisis, Swiss watch exports plunged 22.3 percent in 2009 – more even than during Covid-dominated 2020.

“I am unable to say what the global repercussions will be,” Thierry Stern, the boss of Patek Philippe, told AFP.

“But I still think it should be easier than in 2008-2009.”

Participants are seen next to a giant watch by German manufacturer of luxury and prestige watches at the luxury watch fair in Geneva', on March 27, 2023 in Geneva.

Participants are seen next to a giant watch by German manufacturer of luxury and prestige watches at the luxury watch fair in Geneva’, on March 27, 2023 in Geneva. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

For the moment the difficulties remain “very localised” as Patek Philippe “sells all over the world”, said Stern, who is counting in particular on Asia to ensure growth in 2023.

Jerome Lambert, managing director of the luxury giant Richemont – owner of the Cartier, Piaget and IWC brands – acknowledged that the turnaround in
demand in 2009 had been “very rapid” and very “severe”.

“But it was a big lesson for us,” he said, explaining that the group had since taken distribution in hand.

Edouard Meylan, owner of the Hautlence brand, nevertheless believes that “lights are turning red”.

“If there is a financial crisis, it will have a very big impact on our sector,” he told AFP, especially since with supply difficulties some watchmakers have gone from “very large orders from their suppliers” and risk finding themselves with large stocks if the market turns.

Other analysts believe there is little reason to panic just yet.

“For now, I would expect the impact to be muted,” Jon Cox, an industry analyst with the Kepler Cheuvreux financial services company, told AFP, adding that he is still expecting to see growth this year of around 10 percent in exports.

READ ALSO: Swiss sweat over size of new superbank

Full steam ahead for China?

However, the Credit Suisse debacle, which threatens tens of thousands of jobs in the financial sector, could take its toll.

“The financial community is an important part of the buying public for the watch industry and there could be impact in local markets, such as Switzerland, on domestic business,” Cox warned, adding though that “this is likely to be offset by tourism”.

For now, Swiss watchmakers are looking to the Chinese market to pick up pace and ensure their 2023 export growth.

When demand was exploding in other markets as they rolled back pandemic protection measures, the watch market in China remained subdued as the country ploughed on with its zero-Covid rules, and then saw infection numbers explode when it abruptly ended that policy late last year.

But watchmakers and experts are expecting that to change with the reopening of the Chinese economy.

Jean-Philippe Bertschy, an analyst with Swiss investment managers Vontobel, warned however that “a return to normalcy” for Chinese watch sales – traditionally Swiss watchmakers’ largest market – will take time.

On the positive side, he told AFP he was confident, given “the level of savings the Chinese had set aside during the health restrictions”.

As for tourism, he cautioned that while Chinese travellers may quickly flock to Asian destinations, “it will take more time before they return to Europe,” due to the continued limited air transport capacity and visa backlogs.

By Nathalie OLOF-ORS