Northern Light: The unique charms of Reykjavik

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The Northern Lights, seen from Iceland. (Shutterstock)
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Godafoss Waterfall in Iceland. (Shutterstock)
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Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik. (Shutterstock)
Updated 05 June 2019
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Northern Light: The unique charms of Reykjavik

  • The Icelandic capital is unlike anywhere else in Europe
  • The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route, as it’s easily accessible in a day trip from the capital. The route takes in Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall.

DUBLIN: Reykjavík looks like no other European capital, but Iceland is like no other European country. It is of course, technically part of Scandinavia, but the country is very different from the likes of Sweden and Denmark. Its capital is beautiful, dotted with picture-postcard wooden houses and surrounded by some of the most spectacular countryside on the planet. It’s also filled with creative, quirky locals, and despite being no bigger than a town, has a whole host of culinary and artistic diversions.

The experience you have here will depend greatly on the time of the year you go. Travel in the winter months, and you will get almost total darkness, bitter cold and, of course, the glorious Northern Lights. Travel in the summer and you can expect only a few hours of darkness every night, as well as perfect weather for walking.

For a glimpse of Iceland’s prolificacy during the boom years, take a stroll to Harpa — the massive glass concert hall on the waterfront which opened in 2011. There are regular concerts held there, but it’s worth taking one of the daily guided tours, to hear the ill-fated history of the building as well as soak up some spectacular views. 

Although Iceland is starting to question the wisdom of unfettered tourism, Reykjavík is a very breathable city. Most of the buildings are wooden and no more than three stories high, which gives the place a frontier-town vibe. Its size means it’s perfect for walking, and one of the best routes is from the city center to Hallgrimskirkja, the iconic, spaceship-like church on the edge of town. The church is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; take the lift to the top (73 meters up) where spectacular views of the city and surrounding coast await.

Back in the city center, head to Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main shopping street. Amid the overpriced tourist tat (any shop that sells stuffed toy puffins), there are some wonderful handmade goods on offer in Kirsuberjatred, on Vesturgata, including jewelry, baby footwear and sustainable bowls made of (yep) radish paper.

Although Iceland’s food culture hasn’t reached the heights of its Scandinavian neighbors further east, there is plenty to choose from in the city center; everything from hole-in-the-wall burger joints to tapas-style restaurants to high-concept Icelandic cuisine. We recommend Dill, the first Icelandic restaurant to receive a Michelin star, which focuses on New Nordic cuisine (try the dried puffin and trout).

It’s also worth getting the ferry to Videy Island, which only takes five minutes from the pier at Skarfabakki. The island is small, windswept and beautiful, and features an outdoor art gallery. Chief among the exhibits is the “Peace Tower,” created by Yoko Ono, which features the message “Imagine Peace” in 24 languages. Back on the mainland, take the waterfront path that heads northwest out of the city towards the iconic lighthouse on Grotta Island. The spectacular Esja mountain range looms across the bay, and provides a spectacular backdrop, as do the regular pieces of public art along the route.  

Iceland is rightly proud of how it has harnessed the geothermal energy that exists below its surface, allowing citizens to access free, unlimited hot water. You too can enjoy this natural bounty at Laugardalslaug, a series of rock pools in Laugardsalslaug Park at the eastern edge of the city. It features an Olympic-sized outdoor pool, waterslides and numerous hot tubs and steam baths.

If you want to go further afield — and you should — there are numerous day trips that give a glimpse of the country’s otherworldly scenery. The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route, as it’s easily accessible in a day trip from the capital. The route takes in Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall.

Iceland is known for its spectacular terrain, and even the 45-minute journey to Keflavik airport passes through breathtaking volcanic landscapes. The Reykjanes field is dotted with mud pools, steam vents and hot springs. If you have time, stop at the Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport. It’s relentlessly popular (1.5 million tourists per year) and not cheap ($40), but its huge geothermal pools are the perfect way to wind down before a long flight.


Malaysia seeks to attract more Arab tourists

Updated 17 June 2019
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Malaysia seeks to attract more Arab tourists

  • Tourism minister tells Arab News how his country plans to do so

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia is on a mission to welcome more tourists from the Arab world, establishing itself as a cosmopolitan, halal paradise.
With pristine beaches and diverse cultures, the Southeast Asian country has become a magnet for Middle Eastern tourists.
“Malaysia enjoys good relations with the Middle East. Arabs will always feel welcome in Malaysia. We have mutual respect for each other,” Malaysian Tourism, Art and Culture Minister Mohamaddin Haji Ketapi told Arab News.
“Malaysia has a multicultural society. There are a lot of ethnic groups that live happily and peacefully in this country.”
Colonized by the British, migrants from China and India were brought to Malaysia as laborers. “The country is a mix of people … such as the Malays, Chinese and Indians,” said Haji Ketapi.
“Malaysia has countless places to visit besides the capital Kuala Lumpur,” he added, citing Penang, Melaka, the Langkawi islands and Sabah.
“In the Middle East, most of the visitors are from Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Jordan, the UAE and other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries,” he said.

Malaysia's Tourism, Art and Culture Minister Mohamaddin Haji Ketapi.  (AN photo)

In 2018, nearly 33,000 Arab tourists visited Malaysia, up from 27,000 the previous year. “We want to have more Middle Eastern tourists,” said Haji Ketapi, adding that the majority of Arab tourists are from Saudi Arabia.
The number of Arab tourists is expected to rise further as Malaysia continues to position itself as a Muslim-friendly, halal haven.
Saudi tourists spend the most when holidaying in Malaysia, at $257 per capita, more than visitors from the UK, the US and Australia, said Haji Ketapi.
“Recently, we were in Dubai promoting Malaysia to attract more Arabs. They’re considered high-end tourists,” he added.
“When they come to Malaysia, they can spend up to six or seven nights, or even more. They stay longer in Malaysia than some other tourists.”
Saudi tourists spent on average 10.1 nights holidaying in Malaysia. “They come to Malaysia for health treatments, shopping and holidaying,” said Haji Ketapi.
“Some of them even come here for business. They have restaurant businesses. That’s why you can easily find Arabic restaurants.”
This year, Malaysia was ranked by the Mastercard-Crescent Rating Global Muslim Travel Index as the top travel destination for Muslim travellers for the ninth year in a row.
“Halal food can be easily found in the country. The majority of the population are Muslims,” said Haji Ketapi.

Malaysia's Tourism, Art and Culture Minister Mohamaddin Haji Ketapi speaking to Arab News journalist Nor Arlene Tan. (AN photo)

Muslim tourists “can go anywhere in the country without difficulty,” he added. “Mosques are everywhere for them to perform prayers. During Ramadan, there are a lot of Middle Eastern tourists visiting Malaysia.”
In every hotel, shopping mall and airport, Muslim travellers can find prayer rooms with signage pointing to Makkah, said Haji Ketapi.
Air Arabia “will be flying soon from Sharjah International Airport to Kuala Lumpur International Airport to bring more tourists from Arab countries,” he added.
“Arabs can easily learn about Malaysia with just a click of a button,” he said. “If I want to go to Dubai, I can just go on the internet and get information about Dubai. I can easily search for the name and cost of hotels and food.”
Some 30 percent of the population in the Middle East are aged 15-29. As such, Malaysia’s government hopes to attract younger tourists through its Visit Malaysia 2020 tourism campaign, which will include digital marketing, social media, influencers, hosted media and other online platforms.
“These people will cover Malaysia through social media and the internet, and bring the news to their country,” said Haji Ketapi.
“We hope to do more such connectivity to get more … tourists from everywhere to visit Malaysia.”