Sunday, March 31, 2013

Whale watching boosts Grundarfjörður’s income in winter

It was fascinating to learn that winter tourism was non-existent in Grundarfjörður only two years ago. In fact, the town’s main hotel sat empty all winter long. When winter migration patterns brought large numbers of herring to the fjord, orcas followed. Whale watching industry enthusiasts saw an enormous opportunity. They worked with local authorities and entrepreneurs to set up whale watching operations for the first time in 2012.

In two years’ time, winter tourism has exploded, bringing income and additional employment to the community. The hotel is now fully booked all winter and planning with other entrepreneurs to set up additional attractions and expand economic opportunities to the town. We saw close to 80 orcas during our outing. It is too early to quantify the impact of whale watching, but it is clearly enormously beneficial to the community.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Can’t wait for the return of Game of Thrones

I’ve been counting the days until the return of Game of Thrones to Iceland on April 1. This gripping HBO series has an Icelandic connection as the film crew has been to Iceland twice to film a few scenes “beyond the wall.” We met some of the actors, extras, the director, and producers during one of their visits which made the series all the more interesting. Will Tyrion Lanister make a comeback? Will we see Daenerys’ dragons in action? Will Joffrey’ meanness surprise us? There are so many questions….

Friday, March 29, 2013

Grundarfjörður – a thriving community

We visited Grundarfjörður recently and had an opportunity to see a thriving community in a beautiful setting. Nestled in the mountains at the end of the fjord right next to the Kirkjufell mountain, Grundarfjörður is a fishing village known for its neatness and hospitality. We met Mayor Björn Steinar Pálmason and the Chair of the Town Council, Sigurborg Hannesdóttir who gave us a great overview of the town. We also visited two family owned fish processing plants, one of which proudly ships most of its cod, herring, and red fish to the United States East Coast. The other specializes in salted cod for the European market. The plants are family owned and have been in business since the 1940s. The local high school, Fjölbrautaskóli Snæfellinga, has unique facilities and offers a learning model suited for many of its students who travel many miles (some take the ferry from across the bay). It was our great and pleasant surprise to find out that Amila Crnac, one of a few very talented Icelandic students who received a prize in an English story writing contest organized by the Association of Teachers of English in Iceland, attends that school. We learned that the American connection to this innovative school came from the ideas that helped shape the physical layout which was provided by an American specialist.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Iceland and the United States in rock solid scientific partnership

During a visit to the Icelandic Heart Association (Hjartavernd) where I met with Dr. Vilmundur (Villi) Guðnasson, it became abundantly clear that the scientific partnership between the American National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Icelandic Heart Association is producing groundbreaking results in the fight against heart disease. Villi explained that since 2001, NIH has provided nearly $50 million in funding to the Icelandic Heart Association in support of its longitudinal study on aging and other groundbreaking research that is giving us a better understanding of heart disease risks and a foundation for preventive interventions in the population. The research facilities at Hjartavernd are among the best in the world and another manifestation of the great partnership between our two countries.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Our condolences to Iceland

AP Photo/Peter Morrison 2009

We were very distressed to hear about the tragic accident when Örvar Arnarson and Andri Már Þórðarson lost their lives when they were trying to get the most out of them. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these young men. We feel as if one of our own were involved.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Whale watching – a force multiplier for the tourism industry

Mary and I had the opportunity to go out and enjoy the wonders of whale watching just a few minutes outside of Reykjavik. The day was absolutely perfect with no wind and endless visibility. We saw hundreds of dolphins and majestic humpback whales cavorting in the ocean. One could see the joy in the tourists’ faces when observing these beautiful and graceful mammals only a few yards away.

I am told that over 170,000 tourists went whale watching in Iceland last year and that the industry has been growing at about 10% per year. This is a promising sector: whale-watching employs about 500 people in the 5-month summer season and indirectly generates many other jobs in the tourist industry. The impact is especially strong in Northern Iceland. There is no doubt that whale watching has become one of the most important drivers for generating tourism income in Iceland.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Reykjavik Fashion and Design are on the Rise

This week gave Reykjavik a chance to showcase Icelandic Design and Fashion and put Iceland on the world stage. In support of these events, we were honored to host a reception for Roxanne Lowitt, guest of honor of the Reykjavik Fashion Festival and world renowned fashion photographer, and Juliet Kinchin, guest of honor of Design March and curator for the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

I have no doubt these events are among the coolest in Iceland and that it won’t be long before Icelandic designers follow the path of Steinunn Sigurð and make a splash on some of the best known runways in the U.S. and Europe. As for Icelandic design, it is as bold as it is unique and judging by the facial expressions of fellow spectators, they enjoyed the festival as much as we did.

More photos from the reception can be found on the U.S. Embassy Reykjavík Facebook site:

Sunday, March 17, 2013

“When Americans and Icelanders work together great things happen...”

…is something we often say about the Icelandic/American relationship and I can think of no better example of this than the partnership between Coastal Carolina University and its Icelandic alumni. Let me explain. Coastal, as the school is affectionately known, is a relatively small, young, but very strong university that has seen about seventy Icelanders graduate from its rolls. Over the years, these Icelanders have returned to Iceland and formed a tightly-knit alumni association based on their shared experiences. The group got together and worked with the school administration to establish a scholarship fund to give five Icelanders the opportunity to attend Coastal. This week, the President of Coastal, Dr. David DeCenzo, visited Iceland to sign an agreement with the association to establish the scholarship program and to explore academic partnerships with Icelandic universities. I am also pleased to add that an Icelander is in the faculty of Coastal.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Confederation of Industries Annual Meeting gives us a peek into the future

The annual meeting of the Confederation of Industries gave attendees an opportunity to peek into the future. One of the three keynote speeches was given by Dr. Laurence Smith from UCLA, who gave us a snapshot of the future based on key drivers such as demographics, natural resources, climate change, and globalization. He painted a picture in which Arctic states, which he dubs the NORCs (the United States, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Canada, and Russia), become more important as the high north emerges as a key geostrategic region by mid-century. He noted that Arctic nations have moved smartly to work cooperatively in preparing for such a future. One of the other keynote speeches was given by Brad Burnham, a New York-based venture capitalist, who encouraged Iceland to pursue digital network-based investment to take advantage of its geographic location, digital entrepreneurship, and high level of internet penetration. He also urged that industry and government support the work of the Internet Policy Institute at the University of Reykjavik.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Icelandic business community looks at the U.S./EU trade and investment pact

The American Icelandic Chamber of Commerce hosted a breakfast meeting to discuss a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) announced by President Obama and European Union President Van Rompuy. There was broad consensus among the presenters (Jon Sigurðsson from Össur, Henrik Bendixen from the European Union, and Ambassador Ellertsdóttir) that the TTIP offers an enormous opportunity to boost trade and investment and strengthen the transatlantic relationship.

Many shared concerns about the potential impact of such an agreement on EFTA and Iceland’s trade position. While many of these questions could not be answered, the event provided the Icelandic business community with a great opportunity to begin a good discussion on Iceland’s trade policies. I made the point that increasing trade with Iceland is a priority for the United States and noted that the U.S. remains the largest foreign direct investor in Iceland and that American firms continue to flock to Iceland.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Blái Naglinn (The Blue Nail) – A story of courage and inspiration

I had the pleasure of welcoming Jóhannes Reynisson at the Residence. He is one of those amazing Icelanders who excel in the face of adversity. His story, told in the Blue Nail documentary, is about the challenges that confront a man diagnosed with prostate cancer. In a most intimate and powerful story, Johanness shows us how adversity can be turned into a force of good. Jóhannes conceived the project the Blue Nail (as a counterpart to the pink ribbon campaign to fight breast cancer) as a way to raise awareness about the disease and raise funds to support the work of Icelandic hospitals in fighting it. Jóhannes wants to bring his campaign to the United States and I have no doubt he will succeed as he has in Iceland.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Geothermal Conference in Reykjavik a success

The closing plenary session of Iceland’s two-day Geothermal Conference provided a venue for excellent presentations by an American scientist, the EU Commissioner for Energy, and the President of Iceland. The first keynote speech was by Dr. Jeffery Tester, Professor of Sustainable Energy and Director of the Cornell Energy Institute, who gave a compelling presentation that detailed the enormous potential that geothermal energy offers the United States and challenged our government to do more to take advantage of that resource. Our representative from the Department of Energy took copious notes of Professor Tester’s comments. The second keynote speech was by Gunther Oettinger, EU Commissioner responsible for Energy, who recognized the potential for geothermal energy and presented plans for using it in Europe. The final presentation was made by President Grimsson, who eloquently described the challenges posed by global warming and his vision of how Iceland’s green economy can serve as a model to the rest of the world. There is little doubt that Iceland’s stature as a world class leader in the use and development of geothermal technologies was reinforced by a very successful conference attended by scientists, government officials, and private sector firms from all over the world.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Young Icelanders excel at writing short stories in English

We were delighted to welcome a group of young Icelandic elementary and high school students who participated in and won a writing contest organized by the Association of Teachers of English in Iceland (FEKÍ - Félag enskukennara á Íslandi). The winners came from all over Iceland and they reminded us of the quality of Icelandic education and the talent of Icelandic students. Among them were future Icelandic literary figures and leaders. It was quite gratifying to hand them their prizes and to see the expressions of pride from parents, teachers, and family members. We look forward to deepening our partnership with the Association. You can read the winning short stories here:

Monday, March 4, 2013

The U.S./Icelandic partnership in geothermal energy

We hosted a roundtable discussion with a group of American and Icelandic geothermal experts on the occasion of the Geothermal Conference being held in Reykjavik this week. The conversation around the table made it quite clear that the American/Icelandic geothermal partnership is broad and deep. It includes private, government, scientific, academic, multilateral, and private/government partnerships in every aspect of the geothermal sector: research, development, investment, production, consulting, and education. Many of these partnerships are the result of naturally occurring joint interests and the joining of forces between the world’s largest producer of geothermal energy (the U.S.) and a world leader in geothermal technology (Iceland). We are also proud of the Embassy’s contributions to this cooperation, through a bilateral agreement between our Department of Energy and the Government of Iceland, as well as our support for the U.S. National Science Foundation’s sponsorship of research in this field.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Food and Fun brings a strong contingent of American chefs

Iceland’s Food and Fun Festival was launched this week offering Icelanders an opportunity to experience the culinary art of chefs from around the world who converge in Reykjavik for one week. As in previous years, chefs from the United States made up a strong contingent, bringing a broad range of styles and creations to Iceland.
As one of my fellow countrymen mentioned at the opening ceremony, the beauty of the Festival is that participating chefs take from Iceland as much they bring with them: new recipes, ingredients, fellowship, and an everlasting connection between Iceland and the United States.