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Boom Town

A South Iceland community aiming to make the most of tourism and immigration

Words by
Jelena Ćirić

Photography by
Golli

The drive into Vík í Mýrdal from the west is one of my favourite stretches of the Ring Road. Just past the turnoffs for Dyrhólaey and Reynisfjara, the flat plains of the south coast narrow and rise into a brief but beautiful mountain pass, windy in both meanings of the word. Before you know it, the town opens up below: to the left, its iconic, red-roofed church on a hill, watching over a slope of low-lying houses. To the right, a cliff leading out to the sea. Ahead, a plain on which the growing town stretches east. 

If you’re looking for a community in Iceland that has been profoundly changed by tourism, there is hardly a better place to look than Vík, the urban centre of the Mýrdalshreppur municipality. Over the past eight years or so, building after building has sprung up in the town: a two-storey Icewear store opened in 2017, a 72-room hotel in 2018. Since 2015, the municipality’s population has nearly doubled, from 480 to 877. Ten years ago, there may have been one or two places in town for a traveller to sit down for dinner. Now there are enough restaurants for Tripadvisor to compile the top ten. 

vík í mýrdal

As elsewhere across Iceland, the booming tourism industry in and around Vík needs workers, and most of those who have come to the town in recent years are immigrants. While across Iceland, some 18% of the population are foreign citizens, in Mýrdalshreppur that figure is 60%, making it the only Icelandic municipality in which immigrants constitute a majority. It’s a reality in which both the opportunities and the challenges brought by immigration and multiculturalism in Iceland are magnified. I’m here to learn more about both.

icewear vík
tourism in vík
tourism in vík

The Mayor’s office

In Einar Freyr Elínarson’s office, a big screen hangs on the wall, featuring a photograph of goats frolicking in a field. “It’s taken on my farm,” he explains. “I’m the sixth generation of my family to live there. I’m a country boy, as deeply rooted in Mýrdalshreppur as I could be.” For years, the family farm has also had a guesthouse and a restaurant, and before becoming mayor last year, Einar was involved in the family business. “I have a background in tourism, and like everyone who works in tourism here, I’m used to working with foreigners. Since I was ten, there have almost always been some foreign people living with us at home, so I sort of grew up in that environment.”

Einar Freyr Elínarson

“In the youngest division of the preschool, most of the children are from families of foreign origin. Most of them don’t speak Icelandic. If we don’t address this, it could lead to certain social problems in 10-15 years. We have an opportunity to prevent that.”

Since Einar’s childhood, however, the tourism industry in Mýrdalshreppur has changed dramatically, expanding from a seasonal industry to a year-round one. “Back in 2010, people were hiring staff for two or three months over the summer, but there was nothing to do over the winter. Around 2017, that started changing very quickly. There started to be a lot of traffic over the winter, which meant tourism companies could hire staff year-round. I also think that’s why we’re leading in tourism in this area: we have such quality staff.” 

tourism in vík

When the pandemic brought tourism to a near-complete halt, it really sunk in for Einar that many of the foreigners who had come to Mýrdalshreppur for work were not just here temporarily. “I was on the local council at the time. When companies closed and had to lay off their staff, we thought the municipality’s tax income would collapse. What we hadn’t realised is that there were a lot of people who had lived here long enough that they had earned the right to unemployment benefits. The municipality got local tax income through those benefits, and its income didn’t drop quite so much. That’s when I realised: OK, people are starting to settle here. They’re not leaving.” 

I head to the Icewear wool shop to meet one such settler, who came to the town years ago and never left. 

vík black sand beach

Icewear

The Icewear store in Vík is more than a store, it’s an institution. A sea of coats, socks, knitted hats and sweaters, stuffed toys and souvenirs fill its vast, two-storey floor plan. Even on this weekday morning in early November, tourists are wandering the aisles, picking up a puffin-emblazoned scarf or a hiking shoe for closer inspection. “Summers are crazier, but the winters are catching up,” Tomasz Chochołowicz, the store’s energetic manager, and the chairman of the town’s English-language Council, tells me.

icewear in vík Tomasz Chochołowicz

“At first I thought local politics were beyond my reach, that they were more for Icelanders.”

Tomasz moved to Iceland in December of 2015. “I came straight to Vík. It was different than it is now. A year or two earlier, the hotels were closing down over the winter. I was unemployed for a month, I had debts. It was tough. Then I met a woman who lived here and she helped me find a room. I stayed with a guy who was working at Icewear. He told me to leave my CV here. I got a position because I already had housing; it was such a hard thing to get. Then I lost it one week later.”

Tomasz eventually settled in, and shortly afterwards, his girlfriend (now wife) joined him in Vík. Eight years later, he has climbed the Icewear ladder to become the store’s manager. He has a house and a three-year-old son. “There are challenges. But if you compare it to life in other places, it’s just crazy good.” He admits, however, that for residents arriving now, it’s more difficult to enter the real estate market. “We have many young people working here, between 20 to 35 years old. Very often they stay for three, four years. It’s a challenge for us to try to keep them here. To give them a carrot, so to say.”

Víkurskáli

One person looking for such a carrot is Irene, a cashier I meet when I pop into Víkurskáli gas station. Irene came to Vík two years ago, relocating from an Athens she describes as “overpopulated.” I ask her how the town is treating her. “I love it here, but it’s not for everyone,” she answers. While settling in wasn’t hard for Irene, “it’s after that it gets harder. Then it’s in Óðinn’s hands, or Þór’s,” she quips.

“I love it here, but it’s not for everyone.”

When I ask Irene about the challenges of living in this small, South Iceland community, she lists off many issues that small communities across Iceland share: the health clinic, which also serves as the community’s pharmacy, is only open from 9:00 AM-1:30 PM on weekdays. There’s a lack of housing, and most new buildings are “built for the tourists, not for the people who live here. They’re trying to build more housing, but it’s too slow.” Many of the issues, she recognises, are not necessarily reflections on the municipality, but the government. “The big heads seem to forget there’s a strong community of people here behind the touristic town that really try to stay long term. But we don’t have a hospital, post office, or school big enough to accommodate a town of nearly 1,000 people.” Irene wants to stay in Vík, but she doesn’t know how long she can under the current conditions. “There are not a lot of career opportunities for people who would like to work on their career path.”

The English-language Council

Over the past few years, as Mýrdalshreppur’s transformation was taking place, the issues facing foreign residents were not immediately apparent to the local council. That changed in the lead-up to the 2022 municipal elections. “When we were preparing the candidate lists for the election, Tomasz came to the meeting,” Einar tells me. “He took the stage and explained that a very large group of people within the community felt that they didn’t have a real opportunity to make an impact. So we had a very honest discussion about that and the idea of forming an English-language Council emerged.” 

Einar Freyr Elínarson

“It’s because of the work of these new residents that the municipality is in a good financial position.”

There was one specific development in 2022 that helped Vík’s foreign residents be heard. An amendment to Iceland’s election legislation meant that foreign residents could now vote in municipal elections after having lived in Iceland for three years (previously it had been five). In Mýrdalshreppur, this meant that suddenly, 42% of all eligible voters were immigrants. “The number of foreign residents on the electoral register quadrupled,” Einar reflects. “It was a whole different game. Suddenly this group could make demands of the municipality for services that were important to them. Building a new gym became a campaign issue, something that no one was thinking about eight years ago. The biggest demographic among foreign residents is 20-40 years old, this is a service that is really important to them.” 

polish immigration iceland

Once he became mayor, Einar quickly saw that to gain residents’ trust, he needed to make sure his involvement in the council was hands-on. “I decided that I would attend all the English-language Council’s meetings. I go to every single one and I give them a report on what’s happening in the municipal council. And it’s been really good for me as well to get their perspective on things. The issues we discuss in the municipal council affect all residents, including foreign residents.”

Doctors, drones, and dialogue

As Tomasz reviews the issues the council has discussed over its inaugural year, I can see they range widely: bringing more doctors to Vík, regulating drone flying within the town, preparing welcome brochures for new residents, and making Icelandic language education more accessible. Local residents often work long hours and finding the time and motivation for Icelandic classes can be a challenge – especially when their jobs mostly involve serving foreign tourists in English. “If you want to have true access to Icelandic society, learning Icelandic is key,” Tomasz says. “I had the idea that the municipality could hire a teacher who could be available at different times to accommodate shift workers. The problem is how to frame it since no one has done it before. But it’s also exciting, because why not? Let’s see where it takes us.”

In its role as an advisory body, the council has made proposals that are followed up on by the municipal council. Although the English-language Council technically does not have any executive power, Tomasz argues that soft power can be even more effective. “If we ask something of the municipal council, we cannot be ignored. We definitely have influence. I think this soft power is better when you’re trying to convince people of something, you create connections. If you push too hard, you create more divisions in the community.” 

Housing

When I ask Einar about the biggest issue facing Vík, his answer is clear. “Housing. Whatever housing goes on sale, employers buy up immediately, because they want to grow their companies. And in order to grow their companies, they need to hire people, so they buy housing so they can rent it to their staff.” In contrast to the capital area, most workers who have settled in Vík live in housing provided by their employer, Einar explains. “And the municipality is no exception there. We’ve had to buy a lot of apartments in the last few years just to be able to hire people for the office and the schools. And we’re in the same position as the companies: we can’t continue to house someone if they stop working for the municipality.” It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s not ideal for any of the parties involved, Einar explains. “It’s a bad situation for the worker, who is completely dependent on their employer for housing – they’re stuck working for the same person. And the companies would also rather invest their money back into the business or pay out dividends.” By building more rental housing, Einar hopes Mýrdalshreppur can change this system. New rental apartments have come on the market recently and the municipality just signed a contract to build 200 more units over the next ten years.

vík í mýrdal
vík í mýrdal
vík í mýrdal

More secure housing independent of employment contracts will also help reduce resident turnover, Einar suggests, which could in turn help diversify the economy. “A lot of the new residents in this area are highly educated. They could easily do something totally different from working in tourism if they weren’t at risk of losing their housing.” Another important factor is ensuring good services. “Foreign residents are lacking a big part of their support network here. If they have kids, they need to know there will be space for them in the preschool, because Grandma and Grandpa aren’t around to watch the kids if something comes up.”

housing construction in vík

The preschool

When I enter the preschool, it’s naptime. I tiptoe through the hallways in search of its director, Nichole Leigh Mosty, hopeful that she, at least, is still awake. Originally from the United States, Nichole has been living in Iceland for over 20 years. Much of that time has been spent working in the fields of diversity and inclusion, in both Reykjavík and Ísafjörður (the Westfjords) and directing organisations such as the Multicultural Information Centre and W.O.M.E.N. in Iceland (the Women of Multicultural Ethnicity Network). Nichole took on the position of Vík’s preschool director last June. The immigrant community here differs from the others she’s gotten to know.

preschool in vík

“The other day, the Prime Minister said that if anyone could have perfect equality, it’s Iceland. So why don’t we?”

“In Reykjavík, there is a lot of diversity among immigrants. There are university-educated people who are working in their field; there are people like me, ‘two-decaders´ who have settled in, and not necessarily around a particular industry; there are people who receive refugee status who settle there because that’s where the services are. In Ísafjörður, there are immigrants who have been there for a long, long time. Here, it’s a whole different reality: there are a lot of people who are newbies, fresh to the country.” While the length of time most immigrants stay in Vík may have lengthened since 2015, Nichole still sees a lot of turnover. “And maybe that’s OK. Maybe we need to also think about short-term inclusion. Not necessarily just integration, but inclusion: how do we include people who come for a little while? Because there’s a lot of wealth in having young people here with new ideas,” she observes.

The fact that most of Vík’s new residents work in the tourism industry presents specific challenges when it comes to integration. “I have families here who work very hard in the summer and then take their vacation in the winter. So I’ll lose children out of the preschool for six, seven weeks. That might be great for the family, but it’s a huge gap in language development.” The preschool recently elected a new parent’s council, where two out of the three members are of foreign origin. “I’m really happy they came to me and asked if they could be involved. I want it to be a learning opportunity for them about how things work in the local community, but also for us, to learn what they’re thinking. Like, for example, why they still go to the doctor in Poland.”

Nichole Leigh Mosty

“I’m here because I believe something really special can happen in Vík if we all look at the community we have, look at the community we want, and work together to make it.”

As for the English-language Council, Nichole sees it as a good first step towards greater integration and inclusion in Mýrdalshreppur. “People are proud of the fact that it’s here. People are proud to be a part of it. And that’s a really important first step. But as for the next steps: how do we get the community more involved in the council? And how do we bring what happens in the council back out to the community?” Nichole stresses the importance of the council being involved in shaping policy within the municipality, particularly a policy on integration, which is still lacking.

When I ask Nichole what motivates her to continue to fight for inclusion, her optimism is apparent. “After the Women’s Strike the other day, the Prime Minister said that if anyone could have perfect equality, it’s Iceland. So why don’t we? There are so many possibilities to get it right.” Nichole points out that the changes in Vík benefit long-time locals just as much as Iceland’s newcomers. “The town is booming. Everywhere you walk, they’re building something.” The preschool is no exception: it will soon be housed in a new building, the first phase of which is set to be completed by December. “Growth is happening. The question is, what do you do to include these new people in the community that they are basically funding and keeping alive?”

The running track

As I step out of the preschool, I wander to the running track at the edge of town. Two women are strolling around it, one pushing a baby carriage. During the pandemic, this municipality had one of the highest birth rates in Iceland. I think about how Einar framed his hopes for the future of Mýrdalshreppur. “I want the municipality to invest because it’s in a good position to invest right now. Many of the new residents are paying full taxes but they are young people without families, which means they are using very few services. As people settle here and have children, they go to school, the operations become more costly. The opportunity to build for the future is now.”

vík í mýrdal

I wonder what others in Iceland can learn from the developments in Vík: both its challenges and the enthusiasm and vision of its community leaders. I hope they won’t wait until immigrants become the lion’s share of voters to ask these questions. If they do, they’ll lose valuable time. As I return home to Reykjavík, Nichole’s last words to me echo in my head. “People should watch what happens in Vík.” I know I will.

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