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Iceland - Health and safety
Happily, you do not need any immunisations to travel in Iceland (although it is advisable to be up to date with all UK recommended vaccines, including MMR and DTP). Even better, because of the climate, there are very few bacteria in the air. Also, the water in Iceland is some of the cleanest in the world. Drink as much as you like, but only out of clean sources. The higher up you are, the safer it is. Mountain waterfalls, glaciers, streams and cold springs are optimal. Otherwise, health concerns for travellers in Iceland are minimal. When hiking, avoid blisters by wearing boots that fit and bring plasters to cushion sore spots. Also use caution on rough paths and in dangerous places (like high cliffs). Bring lip balm for wind-burn and lotion for dry hands. Avoid mass-produced seafood at all-you-can-eat tourist buffets, and in misty mountainous areas, beware of large trolls.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on ISTM. For other journey preparation information, consult NaTHNac (UK) or CDC (US). Information about various medications may be found on NetDoctor. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
Iceland is the safest country on earth – it is highly unlikely that you will get pickpocketed, kidnapped, caught up in a coup, attacked or contract malaria. However, Iceland is also one of the most dangerous places on earth, with a possible threat of volcanic eruption, earthquakes, avalanche, glacier outbursts, tidal waves, blizzards, and other treacherous weather conditions. Expect nothing, but be prepared for anything.
The number-one concern for foreign travellers is road safety. All too often, foreigners assume (wrongly) that driving in Iceland is the same as anywhere else. Drive very carefully and take extra precautions. Never speed, and always remain alert, obey signs and carry plenty of fuel.
Weather is another root cause of safety concerns. Icelandic weather is unpredictable and can be highly problematic. Icelanders cope by going with the flow and never testing the limits. The first rule is to check the weather and the second is never to take the wind for granted. Hurricane-force gusts are serious business that can blow cars off the road and make travel impossible. Add a random bout of rain, sleet or snow and it’s not a pretty picture. If anyone warns you not to go out, then don’t.
The same thing that makes Iceland beautiful (isolated, uninhabited landscapes) can also be hazardous. The ‘middle of nowhere’ is a good description of much of Iceland – one step off the main road is a step away from civilisation and carries the same potential risks as a hike across the Sahara Desert or a trek in the Himalayas. Iceland’s universal emergency number is 112, emergency huts are available in remote areas, and the Icelandic Search and Rescue can be a vital resource. Still, common sense and emergency preparedness always make for the safest travel.
Crime in Iceland is so petty, it’s almost pitiful. Cases of vandalism and public intoxication outnumber theft. The rare violent crime that does take place almost always involves late-night drinking and carousing. Avoid drunk people. Because Iceland is packed full of tourists in summer, thieves may target unassuming foreigners who have let down their guard in a perceivably ‘safe’ situation. If you are a victim of a crime, dial 112 and report it to the police or Lögreglan. They are always helpful and most speak excellent English.
Iceland is a very progressive country that is light years ahead of most when it comes to women’s rights. Icelanders will be the first to remind you how they elected the first woman president in the world and insist that Icelandic women face little discrimination in their society. For women travellers, Iceland is a place to wander freely and experience nature fully without apprehension or taking special precautions. Even so, the savvy woman traveller should always travel with a good set of ‘street smarts’. Potential threats (injury, theft, intimidation) are just as likely (if not more so) to come from fellow foreign travellers. Take special care in campsites and remote mountain huts where potential lack of protection and sheer isolation might place you in a vulnerable position.
Most hostels or guesthouses with sleeping-bag spaces will offer women-only rooms. Likewise, women should not hitchhike on their own. Potential confusion might also arise within Iceland’s particular club culture, where women often play a dominant role that may lead some men to expect more than you are willing to give. Bar-hopping in the middle of the night (even when it’s light outside) poses the exact same risks. There is safety in numbers, while pairing off with strangers is always a huge risk. For more information, contact the Icelandic Feminist Association – the largest women’s advocacy organisation in the country. A rape crisis centre inside the national hospital and Stígamót is the Icelandic non-profit organisation dedicated to survivors of sexual violence.
Not all Icelanders are blonde with blue eyes, but a good many of them are really, really white. For that reason, a variation in skin tone is enough to make you stand out in certain parts of the country. In general, Icelanders are open minded, well educated, hospitable, thoughtful and discard the notion of prejudice. Like most Scandinavians, Icelanders are all about cosmopolitanism and equality, which means that racism gets expressed in more subtle tones. Nobody will shout ethnic slurs at you, but you may get the sense that some people are just a little bit unnerved by your presence. That’s not so much the case in Reykjavík, which is now very much a global city, but the remote hinterland may respond differently. A new wave of African and Middle Eastern refugees, Thai and Filipino workers, and other non-European residents has established a foothold in the country, so a tiny twinge of anti-immigrant fervour just might get projected your way. The issue is less about race per se and more about the potential for a less-Icelandic Iceland. You might get stared at a lot, and some kids might even run up to rub your skin, but most people will treat you fairly. To break any tension, say something in Icelandic.
Travellers with disabilities
Travellers with a disability will find Iceland to be a place that cares about giving all people the right to experience the country fully. There is a very real and sincere push to make the entire travel industry wheelchair-friendly, and in principle, Icelandic law grants disabled travellers equalopportunity access to most public activities (swimming pools, museums, etc). This includes the latest technology to assist those with visual and hearing impairments. For more information on services available to deaf travellers, contact the Icelandic Association of the Deaf. Icelandic sign language is interesting in that it derives from Danish and is therefore quite different from spoken Icelandic – interpretation services are available at the association.
Similarly, the Icelandic Association of the Blind can help arrange for an appropriate guide for visually impaired travellers. While a majority of hotels and farms claim to offer wheelchairaccessible rooms, I have made special note in the reviewed accommodation of those that actually do. These include hotels with at least one ground-floor unit, ramps, and equipped bathrooms. A great online resource is the Icelandic equal rights organisation Sjálfsbjörg, which provides updated coverage on travel topics for less-mobile people and also offers accessible rooms in Reykjavík.
By law, all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons are equal and protected from discrimination in Iceland. Since 2010, same-sex couples have been allowed to marry, but LGBT Icelanders have enjoyed full legal protection for decades. In fact, Iceland is the first country ever to have an out gay prime minister.
While Icelanders are very accepting of LGBT persons as a minority group, the numbers of LGBT individuals in Iceland are so few (per capita) that there is no prominent gay subculture. For example, Reykjavík’s gay pride festivities attract a predominantly heterosexual crowd that just like a good party. The Reykjavík mayor is known to take part in the gay pride parade and typically dresses in drag, along with his wife, and in 2016 Iceland’s president was the first head of state ever to march in a gay pride parade
The political issue is such a non-issue that there is no need to sequester anyone for the sake of solidarity. Similarly, there is no gay ‘scene’ in Iceland. Reykjavík boasts a single official gay bar, Kiki Bar, and a few other noted clubs – though their status of ‘gayness’ is in constant flux. The best resource for tapping into Iceland’s gay community is the gay rights organisation Samtökin 78, which hosts a weekly gathering in its upstairs lounge/library. In general, LGBT travellers should face no ill will or difficulty. Booking a room as a same-sex couple is hardly an issue, and there is no need to hide the fact that you are a couple. Iceland being Scandinavia, public displays of affection are frowned upon, regardless of gender and orientation.
Travelling with children
Children rule supreme in this Scandinavian welfare state, which leaves you little reason to leave the kids back home. Despite Iceland’s high prices, nearly every service (transport, museums, shows, tours, accommodation, etc) offers at least a 50% discount to children under the age of 16 and, more often than not, young kids get in free. The potential cost should be secondary to the experience that awaits. Iceland offers amazing adventures and incredible learning opportunities – it is very hard to be bored.