Tag Archives: World Happiness Index

Cyprus, Preparation and Arrival

Cyprus Postcard Map

I was tired of the long dreary English Winter, especially this Winter with almost two months of continuous wind and rain I was in need of sunshine so cheap flights to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus at only £45 return were just too good to turn down.

I had been to Cyprus before in 1998 but that was a family holiday spent at the hotel swimming pool and on the beach at the Olympic Napa Hotel close to the noisy resort of Ayia Napa and I rather foolishly neglected to see anything much of the country on that occasion so this time I thought that I would put that right.

Ayia Napa has a reputation as a sleazy sort of holiday destination so as this time we were to be staying on the opposite side of the island I had no plans to return there on this occasion.  In a 2017 survey it was in the top ten of European destinations that are spoiled by boozy Brits.  The others (in no particular order) were Kavos in Corfu; Red Sea resorts in Bulgaria; Magaluf, Barcelona and Benidorm in Spain; Malia in Crete, Riga in Latvia and Hvar in Croatia.  Such surveys make me ashamed to be British.

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In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting.

I started as usual with the Human Development Index which ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed amongst other criteria from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. Cyprus is ranked thirty-first, out of one hundred and eighty-nine, one place ahead of Greece and which is regarded as quite high.

Next I look at the Europe Happiness Index and it is rated at only twenty-second out of thirty which is not so good.  Finland is the happiest and Albania (no real surprise) the least jolly.

The Country has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the entire Paphos region which is where we would be staying.

Paphos 04

Cyprus is famous for its Mediterranean beaches which stretch for roughly four-hundred miles and along this coastline are sixty-five Blue Flag Beaches which means an award winning beach every six miles or so.

My next measure is always the Eurovision Song Contest and Cyprus has participated in the annual contest thirty-six times since its debut in the 1981.  So far it has failed to produce a winning entry and the best performance was to finish second in 2018.

Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea after Sardinia and Sicily and together with Malta one of only two independent European countries. Both were previously ruled by Great Britain and as a consequence drive on the left hand side of the road and have a UK electrical system which means no need for European adaptors.  This would later be an inconvenience but I will come to that.

Every Greek Island has its own special Deity and Cypus has Aphrodite who it is claimed was born in the sea close to Paphos.  In Greek mythology Aphrodite was the Goddess of Love and Beauty.  She was married to Hephaestus but was frequently unfaithful to him.

In truth she was a bit of a slapper –  in the Odyssey, she is caught in the act of adultery with Ares, the god of war. In the First Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, she seduces the mortal shepherd Anchises. Aphrodite was also the surrogate mother and lover of the mortal shepherd Adonis and along with Athena and Hera, she was one of the three goddesses whose feud resulted in the beginning of the Trojan War. She was also the patron goddess of prostitutes.

Aphrodite 01

In 2019 I visited Berlin in Germany twice.  Berlin was once a divided city and I saw the remains of the wall.  Cyprus and its capital Nicosia remains a divided city, the last divided city in Europe (for the time being because history teaches us nothing).  After visiting Berlin I was interested to visit Nicosia and if possible cross the Green Line between Cyprus Greece and Cyprus Turkey.  I will come to that later.

We arrived in Cyprus early in the afternoon and a complimentary taxi transfer whisked us the ten miles or so to the Capital Coast hotel, just a short drive north out of the city.  A 1980’s hotel in need of some refresh and attention but we didn’t complain because we were given an upgrade room to a sea view (I had only booked a cheaper garden view) so we unpacked, settled down, sat on the balcony in the sunshine and opened a bottle of Cyprus beer and popped the cork of a bottle of a local wine.

This was light years away from the wind and rain and late winter gloom of the east of England.

Paphos 01

Travels in Portugal, Preparation and Arrival

Algarve Postcard Map 3

We generally take our main annual holiday in September. Sometimes we go to the sea, usually the Greek Islands which are our favourites and sometimes we travel.  This year we decided to travel and we chose to go to Portugal.

There are organised guided tours available for this sort of thing but we prefer to make our own arrangements and not be restricted by a holiday company schedule and inevitable stops at shopping centres and outlet factories that suit the Company but not the Traveller.

In 2017 we travelled through Northern Portugal using the trains but this time we planned to go South where the railway network is difficult or practically non-existent, so this time we were driving.  Our plan was to visit the Algarve region and visit the towns and beaches of the south and west and then head inland to the historic towns of Beja, Evora, Estremoz and Elvas and also to spend a few days in Extremadura in Spain.

In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting.

Sardine Cans Portugal

I started as usual with the Human Development Index which ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed amongst other criteria from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. Portugal is ranked forty-first which is quite low, especially for Europe but it is improving and is up two places from the previous year.

Although it is in Western Europe (in fact it is the most western mainland European country) Portugal did not begin to catch up with its neighbours until 1968 after the death of the dictator António Salazar, the Left Wing Carnation Revolution of 1972 and eventual entry into the European Community in 1986.

Unhappily, the European economic crisis has had a negative effect on Portugal’s position in the Europe Happiness Index and it is rated at only fifteenth out of thirty which is one place behind the United Kingdom.  Finland is the happiest and Albania (no real surprise) the least jolly.

The Country has fifteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites and our previous travel took us to six – The Tower of Belém in Lisbon, built to commemorate the expeditions of Vasco da Gama, The National Palace of Sintra, the Convent of the Knights Templar of Tomar, the University of Coimbra, the Historic town of Guimarães and the Historic Centre of Porto.  This time we would add two more, the Garrison Border Town of Elvas and its Fortifications and the Historic Centre of Évora.

Furaduero Beach Portugal

Portugal is famous for its Atlantic beaches which stretch for one thousand, one hundred and fifteen miles and along this coastline are three hundred Blue Flag Beaches which is the fifth highest amongst all participating countries but looking at the statistics in a different way they get even better and dividing length of coastline by number of beaches, Portugal is way out in front and storms into first place with one proud blue flag flapping away every three and three-quarter miles or so.

When it comes to wine, screw caps have all but completely replaced the cork. Interestingly 35% of the World’s cork forests and 50% of World supply comes from Portugal so there for the time being the cork stopper still reigns supreme even in the cheapest bottles of wine.

My next measure is always the Eurovision Song Contest and Portugal has participated in the annual contest forty-nine times since its debut in the 1964.  Up until recently the country held the unfortunate record for the most appearances in the contest without a win but they put that right in 2017 when they won in Kiev with Salvador Sobral’s entry, “Amar Pelos Dois”.

Algarve Map Silves Electricity Boxes

In my research I have discovered some more impressive statistics: Portugal is ranked third in the Global Peace Index, just behind Iceland and New Zealand.  The index gauges global peace using three measures – the level of safety and security in society, the extent of domestic and international conflict and the degree of militarisation. Portugal for example was one of only a few European countries that escaped involvement in the Second-World-War, the others were Spain (even though they supported Nazi Germany), Switzerland (only in theory of course because they did a lot of Nazi banking and gold trading), Sweden and The Republic of Ireland.

On the subject or war and peace, the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance (Aliança Inglesa) ratified at the Treaty of Windsor in 1386, between England and Portugal, is the oldest alliance in the world that is still in force – with an even earlier treaty dating back to the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373.  England (UK) and Portugal have never been on opposite sides in any military conflict which is a very impressive statistic when you consider that in that time England (UK) has at one time or another been at war at some time or another with almost every other European country.

We left the UK from a dreary, overcast Manchester Airport in late afternoon and in less than three hours later we were watching a glorious sunset from a hotel balcony in Faro in Portugal.

I like Portugal and I was glad to be back.

Algarve Map on Beach Towel

Naples, A City of Danger?

Naples and Vesuvius

“See Naples and die. Well, I do not know that one would necessarily die after merely seeing it, but to attempt to live there might turn out a little differently”, Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad

A few weeks ago I suggested to some regular travelling pals that we should go to Naples in Italy for a few days.  They were horrified by the suggestion because of the city’s reputation as being quite dangerous.  They said that they would prefer to go to Barcelona in Spain even though I pointed out that the Spanish city is the pickpocket capital of Europe.

So we made plans to visit Naples, the third largest city in Italy (after Rome and Milan) by ourselves.

Italy Postcard

In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting. I started as usual with the Human Development Index which ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed amongst other criteria from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.  Italy is ranked twenty-seventh which is quite low, especially for Europe but it is improving and is up two places from the previous year.

The European economic crisis has had a negative effect on Italy’s position in the Europe Happiness Index and it is rated at only twentieth out of thirty which is some way behind the United Kingdom at thirteenth.  Finland is the happiest and Albania the least jolly.

Not surprisingly Italy is the country with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites; it has fifty-three, seven more than Spain which has the second most sites in Europe.  I have visited half of the sites in Spain but when I reviewed the Italy list I was disappointed to find that I have been to less than a quarter.  The historical centre of Naples is on the list and although I have been there before it was a long time before it was added to the list.

Italy has a lot of coastline which stretch for four and a half thousand miles and along this coastline are three hundred and forty-two Blue Flag Beaches which is the fifth highest amongst participating countries.  The Bay of Naples is not very famous for beaches and there are none at all along this particular stretch of coastline.

Volare Domenigo Modungo Polignano a Mare

My next measure is always the Eurovision Song Contest and Italy has participated in the annual contest forty-three times since its debut in the very first contest in 1956. They have won the contest twice but the most famous Italian entry made only third place in 1958.  “Nel blu dipinto di blu” or most popularly known as “Volare”  by Domenico Modungo.

Despite its success the entry surprisingly only came third in the 1958 competition after France and Switzerland but was later translated into several languages and was covered by a wide range of international performers including Al Martino, David Bowie, Cliff Richard, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Luciano Pavarotti, The Gipsy Kings and my personal favourite Dean Martin.  I might be wrong here but I don’t think any of these musical giants ever recorded cover versions of ‘Waterloo’?

Flying even short distances can be a tedious business, not much to see or do but there are one or two exceptions and flying south across the Alps is one of them.  The aircraft seems to come across them so suddenly and even flying at thirty-seven thousand feet, the earth suddenly gets an awful lot closer and suddenly you are only twenty-thousand feet high. And the snow covered black granite peaks rise like soft meringue peaks below.  It is a wonderful sight and I never tire of it but it doesn’t last long and just as dramatically as they rise in southern France they fall away rapidly in Northern Italy.

I always enjoy flying over the Alps, it reminds me of my very first flight and continental holiday in 1976 when I visited Sorrento just south of Naples.

Centro Storico Naples

We arrived in Naples around mid-morning and the only sensible way to reach the city and the hotel was by taxi.  I hate taxis, I am a very nervous taxi passenger, I am petrified of the metre which seems to rack up charges at an alarming rate and I spend any taxi journey fixated upon the clock.  I am almost as afraid of taxi drivers as I am of dogs, but that is another story.

My friend Dai Woosnam once challenged me on this point when he commented: “… there is a contradiction between someone who avoids taxis like the plague, but is happy to spend £100+ a night on a hotel !!   It is such contradictions that make people interesting!”  Well, here is my rationale:  A fifteen minute, €30 taxi ride costs  €2.25 a minute, a  €120 hotel room for twenty-four hours costs .10 cents per minute so it is a simple question of economics and value for money.  If I hired the taxi for twenty-four hours at these rates it would cost me €3,300!

I loathe spending money on taxis especially when the flight here cost only £20. Kim tells me that I should look at it in a different way – because we got the flight so cheap then we can easily afford a taxi.

As usual in Italy we managed to get a driver who looked like and drove like Bruce Willis in an action movie car chase, the type where the cars scatter dustbins and demolish vegetable stalls, and he rattled through the streets at break neck speed, occasionally using his mobile phone and cursing any two second hold up or inconvenient red light and I was thankful when the journey finally ended.

Gulf of Naples Postcard

Ireland – Cork to Cobh in Ten (Irish) Minutes

Ireland Postcard Map

There is a pub quiz question that comes up regularly and which I always get wrong, which is ‘what is the nearest country to the United Kingdom’ and the answer of course is Southern Ireland or Eire but I always forget about the border with Northern Ireland and blurt out ‘France, it must be France’.

We travelled to Ireland in 2014 and went to the west coast and a year later we went to Northern Ireland and stayed in Belfast.  Despite Ireland’s reputation for Atlantic storms, dreary weather and lots of rain we enjoyed blue skies  on both occasions.  So good was the weather that Kim thinks it is permanently sunny in the Emerald Isle so we arranged to go again this year and this time chose the city of Cork, the county of West Cork and the south coast of the country as our destination.

West Cork Route

In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting.

Most impressive is that Ireland is placed seventh in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top ten of the most highly developed countries in the World and before the recent economic crisis it used to be in the top five!  The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.

The economic crisis has had a bit of a negative effect on Ireland’s position in the European Happiness Index however and it is rated at only fourteenth out of thirty which is a very long way behind the United Kingdom.

Ballyvaughan Ireland

Ireland has only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites which, lets be honest, is a rather poor performance and I would suggest that someone in Dublin needs to start travelling around and making some applications – Australia has got nineteen for goodness sake!  The country also needs to do something about its Blue Flag Beaches because it now only has seventy when a few years ago it had one hundred and forty-two!

But some statistics continue to be impressive and Ireland remains the most successful nation in the Eurovision Song Contest, which with seven wins is higher than all other competitors so who really cares about the economic crisis anyway?

It was an early morning flight to Cork and by mid morning we were in possession of the keys to a silver Volkswagen Golf and making the short drive to the city and to our hotel.

It was a brand new car and had some features that I was not altogether familiar with and in particular I had rather a lot of trouble getting to grips with the electric handbrake.  The hotel was at the top of a hill and the car park sloped down towards the reception and I had so much bother with the brake and made such a dog’s dinner of parking that we almost checked in a few minutes earlier than anticipated while Kim kept shrieking “It’s not a Drive-Thru, It’s not a Drive-Thru”

Cobh Postcard

After booking in and approving our rooms the plan was to leave the car in the safety of the car park and take a train to the nearby town of Cobh (pronounced cove).  It used to be called Cove (pronounced cove) but in 1850 the British renamed it Queenstown (pronounced Queenstown) to commemorate a visit by Queen Victoria.  I can’t help thinking that it is rather arrogant to go around changing place names in such a superior way and the Irish obviously agree with me because shortly after independence they renamed it Cobh (pronounced cove).

The Irish I find generally measure journeys in units of ten minutes and the helpful lady at hotel reception told us that it would take about ten minutes to walk to the train station and that the ride to Cobh would be another ten minutes or so.  It took half an hour to walk there and then another thirty minutes for the train to make the short journey around the harbour.  I made a mental note to be sure to make generous allowances for Irish timing estimates for the rest of the week.

Kilmer Ferry County Clare Ireland

Once out of the industrial suburbs of Cork the tracks followed the shoreline of the generous harbour which is said to be the second largest natural harbour in the World after Sidney in Australia.  As always you need to be careful with these sort of claims because at least a dozen or so more make exactly the same assertion including Poole in England, Valletta in Malta and Pearl Harbour in Hawaii.  I suppose it might depend on whether the tide is in or out!

So, we arrived in Cobh and walked along the waterfront and debated our itinerary and by a majority decision agreed to find a pub for a first glass of Dublin Guinness even though we were told that we should really be drinking Cork Murphy’s.

Have you got any thoughts about place names?

Ireland Guiness

Northern Ireland, Preparation and Research

Ulster and Northern Ireland

Eire, Northern Ireland and Ulster

In 2014 we visited Southern Ireland, Eire, The Republic and had such a wonderful time that we planned an immediate return to the Island for the following year.  Not to the South though on this occasion however but to that part of Ireland that still remains part of the United Kingdom – Northern Ireland or Ulster.

Not so long ago most people would no more of thought about visiting Northern Ireland than North Korea, it wouldn’t have crossed their minds to go to Ulster any more than go to Uganda and Belfast would be in a travellers wish list that included Beirut and Baghdad.  Now things are changing and Northern Ireland is reinventing itself as a tourist destination.

The Province of Ulster is nine counties in the north of Ireland and to make things complicated three of these are in the Republic and the other six make up what we know as Northern Ireland.  The map above shows the geographical split. The reasons are many and complicated but in the simplest terms these six counties were partitioned from the Irish Free State when it was established in 1920 because these were areas where Protestants were in the majority and had ferociously campaigned to remain part of the Union ‘by all means which may seem necessary’ which inevitably included violence and civil disobedience.

Northern Ireland Map Postcard

As Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom I found it difficult to carry out my usual areas of research but I have managed one or two interesting facts.

The Office for National Statistics revealed that in 2014 Northern Ireland was the happiest part of  the United Kingdom and the top four places based on a residents survey were the counties of Antrim, Fermanagh, Omagh and the city of Dungannon*.  The least happy areas are all in England at Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, Dartford in Kent, Torridge in Devon, Maldon in Essex, and South Ribble in Lancashire.

Let’s turn to Blue Flag Beaches.  The United Kingdom has one hundred and thirteen Blue Flags and ten of these are in Northern Ireland.  It is more impressive when you think of it like this – The UK has twelve thousand, five hundred miles of coastline and Northern Ireland has four hundred so it has just three percent or so of the total seashore but seven and a half percent of the Blue Flag Beaches.

Northern Ireland Blue Flag

I always like to take a look at the Eurovision Song Contest and Ireland competes as part of the United Kingdom.  Belfast born Ronnie Carroll came fourth in the contest in 1963 with “Say Wonderful Things” and in 1967 the Northern Irish songwriter Phil Coulter wrote the winning UK entry “Puppet on a String” by Sandie Shaw.  He also wrote the following years runner up “Congratulations” by Cliff Richard.

Quite a lot of famous people have been born in Northern Ireland, in Literature there is C.S Lewis, in music there is Van Morrison and James Galway, in golf there is Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy, in snooker, Alex Higgins and in motor racing Eddie Irvine.  Leaving Best till last is George who is generally reckoned to be the finest player who never played in a World Cup finals and makes it into everyone’s top ten greatest footballers. I saw George Best once when he gave an after dinner speech, later I shook his hand and got his autograph and believe me it was a very special moment!

When it comes to actors there is Kenneth Branagh, Liam Neeson and Sam Neil who I always thought was Australian but turns out he regards himself as a New Zealander.

We arrived at Belfast International Airport around about lunchtime and still being in the UK there was no tedious border control procedure so we skipped straight through and made for the Sixt car hire rentals office on the other side of the airport car park.  I completed the paperwork and paid for fully comprehensive insurance which more than doubled the cost of the rental at a stroke.  Still, better to be safe than sorry we all agreed.  We were allocated a brand new silver Honda Civic Tourer and eased out of the car park satisfied that we were fully covered for all eventualities.  I should have read the small print – more about this later!

Belfast International Airport isn’t exactly in Belfast and there was a twenty mile drive to the city and I overruled the SatNav and avoided the motorway and took a leisurely drive through the small towns and villages along the way eventually arriving in the capital after about forty minutes.

Rather unusually we found the Premier Inn hotel with a minimum of fuss and presented ourselves at the check in desk where the lady on reception asked if we were with the Stag Party. OMG, there was a twenty strong bunch of staggers at the hotel all intent on getting gloriously drunk and having a riotously noisy  evening.  The receptionist scratched her head and fiddled with the keyboard and then happily announced that she had found us two rooms a couple of floors away from the merry makers.  We celebrated with a Guinness.

A Premier Inn Hotel is always a safe choice, hardly luxury but always reliable.  Last year I took my granddaughters to  a Premier Inn for a night and the youngest, Patsy, declared it to be the best hotel she has ever stayed at in her life – but she is only four years old!

Satisfied we found our rooms on the fourth floor, left unpacking until later and stepped out into the sunny street for a walking tour of the city.

Welcome to Belfast

*What is interesting is that although there is still a desire for many Catholic Nationalists for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and join the Republic, three of these areas are predominantly Catholic.

Ireland, Preparation and Statistics

Ireland Map

There is a pub quiz question that comes up regularly and which I always get wrong, which is ‘what is the nearest country to the United Kingdom’ and the answer of course is Southern Ireland or Eire but I always forget about the border with Northern Ireland and blurt out ‘France, it must be France’.  Not surprising then that until now I have never visited the country.

Later this year of course, if the Scottish Nationalists get their way, then there will be two correct answers to the question which is likely to cause a lot of bar-room arguments!

2014 has been a big year for me as I reached the birthday milestone of sixty years and I was planning something special to celebrate the occasion and then some friends asked if we would like to visit Ireland with them and that seemed special enough so we set about making travel plans.

I suppose I have always been a bit hesitant about travelling in the British Isles because being English I have always been rather conscious that we are not going to win many popularity contests with our nearest neighbours.

A lot of Scottish people seem to hate us and the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond and his dreadful deputy, the Anglophobe, Nicola Sturgeon, desperately want a vote in favour of independence. Until quite recently the Welsh used to burn down our holiday homes and the last time I went there I got a speeding ticket which I am convinced was issued only on the basis that I had an English registered car.  So I was a little concerned about visiting a country who apparently regard the English responsible for all their recent disasters from the Irish Famine to the failure to qualify for the Football World Cup!

Ballyvaughan Ireland

In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting. Most impressive is that Ireland is placed seventh in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top ten of the most highly developed countries in the World and before the recent economic crisis it used to be in the top five!  The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.

The economic crisis has had a negative effect on Ireland’s position in the European Happiness Index however and it is rated at only fourteenth out of thirty which is a very long way behind the United Kingdom but I was interested to see that in a recent poll in the Irish Times that Galway was voted the happiest place to be in Ireland and I was glad about that because that was where we were planning to go first.

Ireland Ennistymon Bright Colours

Ireland has only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites which, lets be honest, is a rather poor performance and I would suggest that someone in Dublin needs to start travelling around and making some applications – Australia has got nineteen for goodness sake!  The country also needs to do something about its Blue Flag Beaches because it now only has seventy when a few years ago it had one hundred and forty-two!

But some statistics continue to be impressive and Ireland remains the most successful nation in the Eurovision Song Contest, which with seven wins is higher than all other competitors so who really cares about the economic crisis anyway?

We flew to Shannon Airport early one Thursday morning and after arrival set about finding the car rental office.  Being a skinflint I had arranged a vehicle through ‘Budget Rent a Car’ and that should have been a warning in itself.  The cost of insurance doubled the original quote and then I was alarmed to find that we had been charged for a full tank of diesel at way above sensible pump prices but to be fair they did promise to refund the charge if we brought it back full but at this stage I have to say that I was not especially hopeful.

We left the airport on the very edge of the river Shannon (the longest river in Ireland and the British Isles) past the peat bogs of the estuary shoreline and headed north to Galway and then the first warning light came on.  It was the engine heater plug warning light so this did not concern me greatly and we carried on but then more lights started to appear until the dashboard resembled a Christmas tree in New York Times Square or Saturday night on the Las Vegas strip.

We carried on because these seemed only to be linked to the instruction to get the thing serviced and I decided to call the hire company later after we had parked up and checked in to our hotel.  And then the Engine Management warning light came on and I thought this might be serious but I didn’t want to spoil the day so on the basis that ignorance is bliss I placed a fold up map over the dashboard display so I couldn’t see it and just carried on while I mentally calculated how much I might be charged for a new engine if it blew up.

So we found the hotel and I was interested to check out this whole Irish happiness/friendliness thing and sure enough the desk clerk was happy and friendly but I remained sceptical and thought, ‘well, of course she is, it is her job’ and then we went into the city centre.  It was lunchtime so we found a pub and I went to the bar and ordered some beer and a man immediately started to talk to me and he was happy and he was friendly and as we enjoyed our first pint of Guinness in the sunshine I instinctively knew that Ireland was a special place to be.

Ireland Guiness

Iceland – What Went Wrong?

1000 krona

The trip to Iceland was eighteen months ago when the country appeared to be riding the crest of a wave, top of the United Nations index on human development and according to a study at Leicester University the fourth happiest place to live in the world.  Iceland had one of the richest economies in Europe, but it had a problem because its three main private sector banks had become so large that their assets amounted to more than ten times the gross domestic product of the country and things have gone spectacularly wrong.

Today the economy is in unbelievably horrible shape and the three banks, Kaupthing, Landsbanki, and Glitnir are in receivership. The stock market has lost 90% of its value, the central bank is technically insolvent and a mountain of liabilities dwarfs its modest pile of assets.  The krona has lost more than half its value.  GDP is expected to drop by 10% in 2009, and unemployment will probably hit a forty year high.  The Government of the country is in meltdown and in January the Prime Minister resigned and called a general election.

Following negotiations underway with the IMF since October 2008, a package of $4.6bn was agreed on 19th November, with the IMF loaning $2.1bn and another $2.5bn of loans and currency swaps from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.  In addition, Poland has offered to lend $200M and the Faroe Islands have offered 300M Danish kroner.  Poland is the biggest net beneficiary of the European Union cash handout so it could probably afford to give a bit back but for the Faroe Islands it is the equivilent of the United Kingdom lending 300 billion danish kronas or 35 billion pounds!  How generous is that.

Iceland retained its top spot in the index on human development in 2008 but it is doubtful it will still be there at the end of 2009 and I’m not sure just how happy they are now either.  In the New Economic Foundation’s 2009 Happy Planet Index Iceland came ninety-fourth.  The Icelandic króna has declined more than fifty percent against the euro.  Inflation of prices in the economy is almost out of control and interest rates had been raised to eighteen percent to deal with it.  The króna’s decline is reportedly only beaten by that of the Zimbabwean dollar.

The assets of Icelandic pension funds are expected to shrink by up to twenty-five percent and the Icelandic Pension Funds Association has announced that benefits will in all likelihood have to be cut in 2009.  Iceland’s GDP is expected by economists to shrink by as much as 10 percent as a result of the crisis, placing Iceland in an economic depression. Inflation may climb as high as seventy-five percent by the end of the year.  Unemployment has more than tripled with over seven thousand registered jobseekers (about 4% of the workforce) compared to just over two thousand at the end of August.

Borgarnes Iceland old ferry terminal

Iceland, which has previously always resisted membership, has also formally applied to join the European Union. The bid must now be approved by the EU, after which Iceland’s people will be asked to vote on it in a referendum.  Iceland, with its tiny population of just 320,000, has traditionally been sceptical about joining because some fear that quotas could hurt Iceland’s fishing industry but many people there have warmed to the idea of membership following the devastating economic meltdown, which saw the top Icelandic banks collapse in a matter of days.

With things this bad and Iceland crying out for customers this could be a good time to take advantage and visit again.  In the United States it is in the top five of bargain destinations because of the fall in the value of the Krona and as long as that keeps ahead of the prices in the shops and the restaurants that should make it nicely affordable.  I hope we would still be welcome there because it does have to be said that Iceland does partly blame the United Kingdom for its economic woes because we turned down requests for assistance and then invoked anti-terrorist legislation to seize Icelandic assets.

The Iceland national tourist web site is reassuring however and says:

While Iceland and most other countries are currently dealing with a serious financial crisis, business in Iceland is being conducted as usual. All services – including banking services – are functioning as on any other day. Hotels, restaurants, airlines, car rentals, currency exchange facilities, offices, shops, etc. are all open for normal business.”

Visitors can be assured that they will be treated with same friendly hospitality that Icelanders have become known for throughout the travel world. There is no reason to fear that a visit to Iceland will be anything other than an enjoyable experience’.

I think I would be prepared to risk it and so are lots of others because visitor numbers from the United Kingdom have increased by 20% since September 2008 .  We British know a bargain when we see one!

Iceland protest

http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3396.htm