Hordur Sveinsson/Visit Iceland
Iceland is like Mars – if the red planet had hot tubs. That’s the cheeky idea behind a new pitch from the Icelandic tourist board, which says people don’t need a spaceship to see otherworldly sights like red rocks, sand noir and subglacial volcanoes. Plus, they note, oxygen is plentiful in Iceland.
To spread the message, they launched a promotional video and a space billboard with the slogan “Iceland. Better than space”.
Space tourism has been in the headlines for years. But people can find a similar experience in Iceland — at a fraction of the cost and without the baggage of a large carbon footprint, Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, head of Visit Iceland, told NPR.
NASA agrees: The agency has repeatedly used Iceland as a surrogate Moon, and it’s doing so again as it prepares astronauts for new off-world missions.
“Iceland is an amazing analogue for both the Moon and Mars,” says NASA’s Kelsey Young, who studies planetary surface exploration and has done geological fieldwork in Iceland.
Iceland vs Space
“From watching the Northern Lights in Reykjavik and relaxing in a geothermal spa to dining in a tomato greenhouse, there are new experiences of joy and wonder just waiting to be discovered” on Earth, says Guðmundsdóttir.
She adds: “Your enjoyment of these experiences would be greatly reduced if you wore a spacesuit.”
Of course, space allows people to escape Earth’s gravity. Overrated, says Guðmundsdóttir.
“On the one hand, gravity gives you water,” she notes. “Without gravity, there are no geothermal pools to relax in. Geothermal pools, on the other hand, give you a feeling of weightlessness.”
Iceland has launched a space billboard
The country recently launched a space billboard as part of its new tourism push. A weather balloon carried an electronic tablet into the stratosphere, carrying an advertisement and a camera to capture an image of the message “Better than space” with the curve of the Earth as a backdrop.
In case you’re wondering: it’s not in orbit.
“We’re not big on space junk and would never set anything on a trajectory around Earth for marketing reasons,” Guðmundsdóttir said. “That would be irresponsible.”
“Using a weather balloon means we didn’t use any fuel to launch the space billboard,” she says, adding that the balloon took off from a part of the country, deflated at a predetermined altitude and was recovered near Lake Mývatn in the northeast. .
NASA and Hollywood have used Icelandic extraterrestrial landscapes
Iceland’s unique characteristics have long made it a destination for scientists, who come to study everything from single-celled organisms that live in extreme conditions to geological processes that unfold on an epic scale.
Before NASA sent its first astronauts to the moon in the 1960s, it sent them to Iceland, where the island nation’s volcanic craters and rocky landscapes allowed them to train on the lunar surface.
“An astronaut, after returning from his trip to the lunar surface, reported that Iceland was the most lunar field site he had visited during training,” Young told NPR.
NASA Earth Observatory
In July, Young was part of a NASA contingent that visited the same sites as Apollo crews. Two astronauts performed mock Artemis spacewalks, she said, in a bid to train more for the upcoming lunar mission there.
Iceland’s unique features allow astronauts to practice navigating in a moon-like environment, Young says. They can also test how tools and equipment might cope with lunar regolith – the mixture of soil and rock on the Moon’s surface.
These features have also helped Iceland evoke other worlds in films and television, notes Guðmundsdóttir.
“Iceland frequently replaces space in movies, due to its otherworldly nature,” she says, reeling off titles ranging from Star Wars’ A thug and the force awakens at Star Trek in darkness. For Interstellar, it depicts two different planets. The country maintains a running list of its star towers.
Tourism sank during the worst days of the pandemic
Global tourism was hit hard in the first two years of the pandemic. But Iceland has continued to promote its appeal for getaways – and it appears to be enjoying pent-up demand.
“This year we expect to see around 90% of the pre-pandemic numbers in terms of visitors,” says Guðmundsdóttir. “This is not the case for all countries,” she adds, noting that the UN’s World Tourism Organization puts the global tourism average at 57% of pre-COVID levels.
Tourism is a vital part of the Icelandic economy, she says: while it accounted for 8% of the national GDP from 2016 to 2019, its share fell to 3.6% in 2020 and 4.2% in 2021.
There is one final area where Guðmundsdóttir sees an advantage for his country. While outer space and Iceland offer huge expanses of beauty, space offers little in the way of cultural exchange. After all, she says, “the true value of travel is in the interactions you create with others.”
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