Tourist Trap

Despite its name, Iceland is actually a very welcoming country if you’re a tourist looking to get away. The small island nation is one of the few places where visitors can see the Northern Lights, go whale watching, climb volcanic mountains, and also avail themselves of the heated spas and pools which the nation’s geothermal energy allows. While tourism isn’t the largest driver of the Icelandic economy by any definition, it’s likely a growing sector. In 2012, officials in Iceland estimated that about 600,000 people visited each year, and expected that number to more than double by 2020.

Then again, one should be a bit skeptical about Iceland’s ability to count tourists — especially if tour guides are the ones doing the counting.

One Saturday evening in August of 2012, a tour group leader in Iceland had a nightmare come true — he (or she; reports don’t identify the group leader) lost a client. His tour was exploring Eldgja, in the south of the nation (here’s a map), which is the largest volcanic canyon in the world, according to Wikipedia. Eldgja is part of a 13,920 km^2 (about 5,400 square miles) national park and which also is home to a massive glacier, and, like many national parks, isn’t home to many if any people. Getting lost in Eldgja is a big problem, and when one fewer tourist returned to the bus than had departed from it, that problem became real. After realizing that the headcount was one short, the tour guide alerted officials that someone was missing.

About fifty people — some on foot, some in various vehicles — began searching for the lost tourist, described as a roughly 160 cm (5’2”) Asian woman who spoke English well and who was wearing dark clothing. The Coast Guard dispatched helicopters to assist in the efforts. Even the tourists themselves pitched in, but as midnight turned into the wee hours of the morning, no one could seem to find the missing woman. Then things took a turn for the better — and for the unbelievable, too.

At 3 AM, one of the tourists engaged in the search found the missing person. Or, more accurately, the tourist realized that she might be the person everyone — herself included — was looking for. She roughly matched the description of the missing person, with one major exception: she wasn’t wearing dark clothing. But there was a good explanation for that. Hours earlier — before all this drama — she had momentarily broken away from the group to change her clothes and clean up a bit (and likely, to redo her makeup as well). No one had recognized her after the wardrobe change, and she had no reason to believe that she was missing — especially because she wasn’t.

It turned out, she was right. Officials re-did the headcount and realized that everyone was present and accounted for. The search party — herself included — was looking for her. Whether the tour guide was reprimanded went unreported. And as for the not-lost tourist, she managed to redefine what it means to find oneself.

Bonus Fact: Iceland leads the world’s nations in per capita energy use, consuming more than twice as much (again, per capita) as the United States. But that is not because Icelanders are being wasteful. Almost all of Iceland’s energy comes from renewable resources, be it geothermal or hydroelectric. Roughly three-quarters of that energy is used to produce aluminum.

From the ArchivesBreaking the Ice: Iceland’s creative way to prevent you from dating your cousin accidentally.

Related: Iceland, the Lonely Planet travel guide.