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
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.
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?
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
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.
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
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.