Icelanders, says Icelandair CEO Jon Karl Olafsson, like to compare their achievements to those of other nations, but only when qualified by the phrase per capita. For instance, Icelandair, he notes proudly, carried 214,000 passengers in July.

Most U.S. carriers flew far more than that, but none could say it carried loads equivalent to 70% of their nations population, as Icelandair did.

Earlier this month, Icelands capital, Reykjavik, had what must have been another (per capita) record -- the most travel writers assembled in one town. About 120 writers worldwide were drawn by Travel Summit 2005, organized by tiny Icelandic Geographic magazine.

Not only did they have per-capita quantity, they had per-capita quality: Attendees included Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler, National Geographic Traveler editor Keith Bellows and travel essayists Tim Cahill and Tim Moore.

Unlike industry summits, there were no statistics presented, no how-to sessions, no panels on channel distribution. But there were insightful and articulate travelers addressing a topic of interest to those in the industry: Why do people travel?

Some answered poetically. Icelandic TV news reporter Thora Arnorsdottir quoted an Italian proverb: To leave is to die, to arrive is to be born. (This not only explains why some people travel, it explains why some wont.)

Tony Wheeler said when he researches out-of-the-way destinations, he sometimes sees tourists sitting in a hotel bar and wonders: Why are they here? Why this particular place?

He met a fellow on a remote island who struck him as an unlikely type to seek out exotic locales. It looked as if he had gotten on the bus to go to a football game and somehow ended up in the middle of the South Pacific, Wheeler said.

It turned out Wheeler wasnt far off: The man was a fan of his local soccer team and followed it around the world. Before long, his passion for sports was replaced by a passion for travel.

Passion, and tapping into it, was a subtext of the summit. Bellows said many of National Geographic Travelers best stories appeal to a readers passion for a quest. For instance, he published an article about a writer who had his DNA analyzed and then traveled to places where researchers said his ancestors once lived, including Tanzania, Uzbekistan, Syria and Spain.

The quest approach works because humans cant resist mysteries. Who doesnt want to pick up a map and look for treasure? Bellows said.

Bellows said its damn hard to come up with quest stories that dont seem contrived, and that he seeks a balance between service and storytelling. His editorial approach is in step with the industry trend of creating experiential travel. I imagine a travel agency or tour company could build a strong business by offering to swab a DNA sample from a clients cheek, then creating a personal roots trip.

It turns out that even business trips can have elements of a quest. Iceland was the first country I had touched down in as a 19-year-old on my way to explore Europe, and Ive long regretted that I only changed planes there. I finally got a closer look and briefly reconnected with my younger self, thanks to a pair of college students who took me on a tour of Reykjavik music clubs.

There were other roots experiences. Cahill was an inspiration to me when I first took an interest in journalism -- I clipped (and have kept) articles he wrote for Rolling Stone in the early 70s. It was nothing short of a thrill to meet him.

And when I took off on an around-the-world trip in the early 80s, it was Lonely Planets Africa on a Shoestring that I took along, the first of many of the Wheelers guidebooks I would get to know. I never imagined one day I would swap travel stories with the couple who created the series.

As conferences go, the attendance was small. But it had -- per capita -- an extraordinary number of rewarding experiences. And I was reminded that the best thing about quests is that at their conclusion, the traveler is inspired to undertake another -- to end one is a bit like dying, to take another is to be born anew.


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