Austurland, which means Land of the East, is the less inhabited Icelandic region with an incredible variety of landscapes. It is the cradle of Iceland and it’s on its coasts that the first vikings disembarked during the Early Middle Ages.
The region is also called Austfirðir, Fjords of the East, because of its coast which is jagged by numerous fjords. At the bottom of them, there is a dozen of villages, inhabited by a few hundred people which live daily with isolation and wild spaces.
It is far from Reykjavik and since the famous Hringvegur (the Route 1) doesn’t cross it, mass tourism, which has invaded Iceland in the last years, hasn’t reached it. Moreover, its complex morphology made of fjords, canyon and uplands doesn’t allow fast movements.
It is a unique context for those who love outdoor activities and the contact with nature. All these peculiarities have always fascinated us and in order to examine them in depth, we have contacted an expert in the field: Páll Guðmundur Ásgeirsson. Married, father of five children, graduated in rural tourism, he is not only responsible for www.east.is, a website for the development of the tourism in the region, but also the manager of the Laugarfell refuge, on the borders of the Vatnajökull National Park.
Austurland is a wild and fascinating region. Which are the main destinations which are impossible to be missed?
The most popular destination in the region is Hengifoss Waterfall, a 128 meters high waterfall falling in a magnificent gorge.
During the summertime then it is a must to go to the puffin paradise Hafnarhólmi in Borgarfjörður Eystri, there is the best place to see puffins in Iceland. But in the middle of August all the puffin go out on the sea but even without the puffins, this is a beautiful area with a lot of good hiking trails.
Seyðisfjörður is the most popular town in the region. The town is known for being the art town in the region and for its old wooden buildings.
Which are the least known destinations that, in your opinion, are worth being visited?
Vopnafjörður region is an area that not many visits but is very beautiful. It is very easy to skip it when you are driving between east and north Iceland. If you take a little bit longer time and drive through or stay in the Vopnafjörður area I promise that you will not be a disappointment. Few tourists go there and very beautiful area.
The area near Mt Snæfell, this area is inside Vatnajökull National Park up in the highlands and is very remote. The landscape up in the highlands is different from the landscape in the lowland. Mt Snæfell is the highest mountain outside glaciers in Iceland, there is an incredible view from the top of the mountain and all around it can you find beautiful places with not many people around.
Austurland is a diverse region: glaciers, fjords and montains. Which are the activities that can be done on holiday?
Austurland is the perfect place to visit if you are interested in an outdoor activity. For hikers the region is paradise, there are all kinds of hiking trails all over the region. Easy trails that everybody can hike up to difficult trails for experienced hikers.
During the winter time, it is possible to visit our ski areas or just hike up to the mountains and go mountain skiing.
The Icelandic horse is popular among Icelanders and people that visit us. There are also museums, café, and towns surrounded by beautiful nature that people can visit.
Life and work in Austurland
For those who live there, which are the main working occupations?
The main working occupations are in the fishing industry. Some of Iceland’s largest companies in the fishing industry are here in the area. There is a big aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður and around 800 people work both in the company and or in other companies providing service to the company. The tourist area is always getting more and more important in this area and now it is the biggest industry in Iceland.
Only 3,5 % of the Icelandic population lives here but the area is providing 25% of Iceland export.
How important is tourism for the local economy?
It is very important to the area, both for the economy and also it is providing more services like restaurants and culture for the local residents. In some of the smallest communities, the tourists are very important to help to create enough business in the grocery store so it can be open.
The tourism boom of the last years in Iceland hasn’t produced only positive effects. Accidents, overcrowded tourist sites and too expensive house rents at the expense of the citizens. Have there been any difficult situations in your region?
Not so much, so many tourists only visit Reykjavík and nearby areas, there are the overcrowded areas. The further you go from Reykjavík the less touristic will it be. In our region there are a more relaxed atmosphere and no mass tourism.
Austurland is the Icelandic region with the lowest popuation density of the island: 12.300 inhabitants on a 22.721 kmq surface (slightly more than Emilia Romagna or slightly less than Tuscany). In 2013 I went to Borgafjörður Eystri, a small pearl on the gulf of a fjord, inhabitated by slightly more than 100 people. Talking to some of them, they told me that during the winter the street is opened no more than three days a week and the provisions are guaranteed by sea. It is a widespread situation in your region. How do these little communities manage to survive? Are there any policies in Iceland to support them?
This is not widespread in the region but there are some places that have this problem. The government is doing something to help these communities but not enough. Many small communities are in a crisis here in Iceland, the young people are moving from them to larger communities. The towns over 1.000 people in Iceland are generally doing well but smaller towns are in difficulty.
The government has few programs for these towns but they have not been very effective and the population is still declining. But with more and more tourists coming to the country some of the small communities have started to grow again.
The craddle of Iceland
Austurland performs an important role in the history of Iceland. It appears to have been the dock of Naddoður, the first viking who has set foot on Iceland, in the 8th century near the current Reyðarfjörður. On the east coast, the first villages appeared during the colonisation which started in XI century. Are there any historical testaments of that period? Are there other sites of historical interest?
In Stöðvarfjörður are archaeologists now working on a project on a place called Stöð. They have found a Viking farm from around the year 800. This might change the ideas of when Iceland was first settled. It is believed now that it was settled 874. This area is still not open for tourist to look at, the project is still in progress.
There are a lot of stories from the Icelandic Sagas all over the region and we Icelanders are very proud of our heritage.
Sports in Austurland
Which are the most widespread sports in your region and which are the main teams? How important is sport for your community?
In this area and whole Iceland is football the most popular sport. Icelanders are crazy about football and many children have the dream to be professionals in the big leagues in Europe.
The sports are very important in my community. Most of the children practice some sport from the age of 6 years old. The parents are actively supporting them and want their children to be in sports. Icelanders think they are good in sports, with only a population of 350.000 people we have qualified to the European tournament in handball, football, and basketball and are winning nations with many millions of inhabitants. We are very proud of our what we are doing in sport.
In the last-few-years football, some clubs (Leiknir Fáskrúðsfjörður, Fjarðabyggð, Huginn) have competed for some seasons in 1.deild, being relegated. Has anyone ever thought about joining the forces for an unique regional team, in football or for other sports?
It has been happening slowly, the clubs from Reyðarfjörður, Eskifjörður and Neskaupstaður were united into Fjarðabyggð a few years ago. They wanted also to united with Leiknir from Fáskrúðsfjörður but that did not work. This season Höttur from Egilsstaðir and Huginn from Seyðisfjörður will be playing as one team for the first time this year. It is happening slowly and it might be in some years that Austurland will play one team from the region.