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Travel

Tourism on Iceland is booming with 'Huh!'

With their "Huh!" Viking war chant - inspired by fans of Scotland's Motherwell club - Icelandic supporters were a hit at this year's Euro football championships - resulting in a spike of tourism to Iceland.

A claim that the population of Iceland is too small for the country to achieve success in a major football championship is something national football coach Heimir Hallgrimsson has heard all his life - and now proved wrong. At the Euro 2016 football championships, Iceland made its mark.

Island Fußball Nationalmannschaft UEFA 2016 Europameisterschaft Trainer Heimir Hallgrimsson (picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Fahey)

Football coach Heimir Hallgrímsson

Hallgrimsson, along with former coach Lars Lagerback, were at the helm when Iceland reached the quarter-finals.

Fans celebrated the team's success with a battle cry, "Huh!". It triggered a worldwide hype - and boosted the country's image. "I don't think you can have bought a better advertisement for Iceland," Hallgrimsson says. "Even a volcano eruption wouldn't have had such an influence."

Geysir, Island (cc-by-sa//ToNG!?)

Iceland is famous for its geysers and hot springs

Footballers as world ambassadors 

The agency Promote Iceland estimates that 152,000 articles were published worldwide this summer. The number of hits on the Website Visit Iceland doubled when Iceland knocked out England. In Germany, meanwhile, internet users googled Iceland almost five times as often as before.

Island Nationalpark Pingvellir (picture-alliance/R. Goldmann)

Thingvellir national park - a World Heritage Site in south-western Iceland

The 49-year-old Hallgrimsson says his country did not need the promotion. Tourism on the small island in the North Atlantic has grown annually by 25 to 30 percent. The country is expecting to log around 1.7 million tourists for 2016 - too many, if you ask Hallgrimsson.

"Everybody is coming to Iceland to look at the nature, and we are destroying it by overloading it with people," he says, noting the strong pressure on the Westman Islands, a small archipelago off the south coast, where he hails from.

In the summer, the ferry between the island and the mainland is often overcrowded and at times Hallgrimsson is unable to get a spot. The football coach says that until Iceland has expand its infrastructure, a "sold-out" sign should be set up at Keflavik airport as a warning to tourists.

Panorama - Island (picture-alliance/dpa)

Iceland horses in front of the Lanjgökull glacier

However, the tourism industry has no plans to halt the flow of visitors. Flights plying the island are also full in the winter as tourists want to see the Northern Lights and snow-covered glaciers. "At the moment it looks like we're going to grow by 127 percent compared to the previous year," says Skuli Mogensen, founder and chief executive of budget airline Wow air. 

Airlines cashed in more than usual during the Euro 2016 championship: More than 30,000 Icelanders traveled to France to see their country's debut in a major international football tournament. 

There is need to strike a balance, says former footballer Hermann Hreidarsson. Along with his father, he runs the Stracta Hotel in the small town of Hella. It has 120 beds and is located near the "Golden Circle," one of Iceland's main tourist routes. "Everyone is aware of this situation, but then again tourism has become a massive industry," says the 42-year-old.

Island Blaue Lagune (picture-alliance/dpa/R. Holschneider)

Bathers at the "Blue Lagoon"

Tourism - a bane and a blessing

The tourism industry has long since overtaken fishing as the largest economic activity. After the financial crisis and the collapse of the main banks in 2008, Iceland recovered surprisingly rapidly, also thanks to the many tourists. "Will the island lose its charm?" asks Hreidarsson, who also hails from the Westman Islands. "I do not think so."

Island Reykjavík Hallgrímskirkja (picture-alliance/U. Bernhart)

Memorial of Iceland's discoverer Leif Eriksson and the Hallgrímskirkja church

The national coach has other concerns. For him, the biggest gain from the sensational performance of his team at the Euro 2016 championships is something quite different. June 2016 "will always be remembered" as the month that gave unity to the Icelandic people, he says. "You can see that political enemies were sitting next to each other hugging each other, a grandma who had never in her life watched football sat with her kids and grandsons." After the financial crisis, people have had something they could enjoy together, instead of just badmouthing each other, the coach says. The team's success "brought happiness into the Icelandic nation," he adds.

Island - Sonnenfahrer-Skulptur in Reykjavik (picture-alliance/ZB/P. Pleul)

Solfar" (The Sun Voyager) - sculpture in the capital Reykjavik

He is confident that Iceland's football adventures are far from over and the "Hu!" cry of the Vikings will also be heard at the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia. 

Julia Wäschenbach (dpa)

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