February 18th, 2017. Reykjavik – Ready to try grilled minke whale skewers, the “Moby Dick on a Stick”, as the dish is advertised by The Seabaron restaurant, a British tourist observes, “looks like a Turkish kebab.” Taking a bite, he adds, “Tastes indeed like red meat and poor ethics.”
Tourism is booming in Iceland. A record 1.8 million people visited the remote North Atlantic island last year, a 40% increase from the year before. The number of American visitors alone – almost 415000 – outnumbered Iceland’s native population of 320 000 and even exceeded the total annual number of tourists in 2006.
In Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, tower cranes rise from the skyline, ever more global fast-food chains are opening down the capital’s main shopping street Laugavegur, and the low-cost carrier WOW Air plans to build an enormous new headquarters.
Less visible is the success of Iceland’s only operating whale-hunting company. Having been declared bankrupt in 2012 and 2013, IP-Utgerd is now having a much smoother sail.
The company hunted 46 minke whales this past season, the largest number in years, to serve a growing demand from restaurants serving the meat to tourists. The catch is now split 60/40 between restaurants and grocery stores.
Five years ago, the market share was the other way around and prices lower, according to the company manager, Gunnar Jonsson.
A wide banner attached to a tiny wooden hut across the street from The Seabaron summarises this trend with the most straightforward phrase: “Whales are Being Killed to Feed Tourists.
“The banner prompts spontaneous visits, usually out of surprise,” says Maria Gunnarsdottir, the manager of IceWhale, an anti-whaling organisation based out the wooden hut by Reykjavik’s Old Harbour.
“Most tourists seem unaware that Iceland has a whaling industry until they, perhaps, notice minke whale as a ‘traditional dish’ on a restaurant menu and get intrigued.”
IceWhale, funded by whale-watching and tour operators – promotes the campaign ” Meet Us, don’t eat us”, that urges tourists to boycott pro-whaling restaurants and instead, enjoy the animals in their natural habitat.
Roughly a fifth of all tourists in Iceland go whale watching. Maskina, a market researcher, ranks the pastime the fourth most-purchased tourist activity, number one being admission to geothermal baths.
In Reykjavik, these two industries – whale-hunting and whale-watching – both operate in Faxa Bay. The whaling boats, however, are only allowed to work roughly 20-kilometre away from the tour operators.