Horse tourism in Iceland A new branch of industry rooted by youmustknowme



  Horse tourism in Iceland: A new branch of industry
           rooted in the old farming society

Ingibjörg Sigurðardóttir
Hólar University College
Department of Rural Tourism
IS-551 Sauðárkrókur

Ingibjörg Sigurðardóttir is a lecturer in the Department of Rural Tourism at Holar
University College. She has a B.Sc. in Travel and Tourism from the Faculty of
Management, University of Akureyri, Iceland and is currently enrolled in the Business
Administration and Management Science Programme (MS) of Bifröst School of
Business, Iceland. Previously she had obtained a diploma in agriculture with horse
breeding and training as her main subject.
Current research and teaching interest is in horse tourism and business skills, service
quality and food culture. Earlier work experience is mainly in agriculture, horse
training and tourism, among other things, management of tourism operations.

  Horse tourism in Iceland: A new branch of industry
           rooted in the old farming society

Key-words: horse based tourism, regional development, small businesses

The Icelandic horse has been with the Icelandic nation from the beginning of
settlement. In the farming society the horse had a dual role as a working horse and a
riding horse, one might even say a travelling companion. Horse-related tourism has
become an important part of leisure activity in Iceland as well as in many other
Horse tourism as a business, is young in Iceland. Laws and regulations about horse
rentals and longer riding tours are yet quiete undeveloped and the permit system is not
working properly. The government agencies are working on these matters and the
companies are doing their best to give their guests service of a finest quality.
This branch of industry has not been a subject of research in Iceland until lately. The
Rural Tourism Department of Hólar, University College in north of Iceland has had
the role to fill this gap. For the last three years the school has been leading a research
and development project about horse tourism in Iceland. The project is sponsored by
the Center of the Icelandic horse and the Icelandic Travel Industry Assosiation (SAF).
The project is a reseach program that also includes giving education and feedback to
managers and staff in the business.                The web site of the project is:

The Icelandic horse and the old farming society
From the settlement of the vikings in Iceland around 870, until the beginning of the
20th century, Iceland was a farming society. In the beginning of the 20th century,
towns started to grow and other industries developed. Despite of this the horse was still
necessary in transporting as cars did not become common in Iceland until after the
middle of the 20th century.
The Icelandic horse was from the beginning of settlement in Iceland, one of the main
premise for living in this rough country. The only way of travelling was by foot or by
a horse. The horse was also significant for labour. Last but not least the horse was
valued as a friend of his owner and highly respected as such. The horse was so much
needed and valued that it was frequently called "the most valuable servant".
When the impact of the industrial revolution reached Iceland, the role of the horse
diminished. More people moved to urban areas. Roads were built, people started to
travel by cars and mechanization in farming replaced real horsepower.

The horse and riding as a part of leisure activities
Leisure activities among Icelandic people related to the horse have always been
important. In the last decades riding as a leisure activity has become very popular.
There are about 73.000 horses in Iceland, and the estimated number of people in
Iceland that ride regularly is about 20.000, of 293.291 inhabitants (as of 1. Des. 2004).
The business operation of horserentals and longer riding tours began in Iceland around
1970. Since then this branch of industry has grown and developed. About 75
companies offer horserental and/or longer riding tours. The estimated number of
foreign guests per year is about 45.000, as according to surveys 15-20% of all foreign
guests go riding. The domenistic market is also increasing in importance.
Unfortunately economic statistics available in the horse tourism are still limited,
resulting in that the total turnover and the total of working capital in this sector in
Iceland is hardly known. However the horse tourism seems to be of an increasing
importance as a livelihood and a part of sustainable development in rural areas.

Businesses in horse tourism
The main motivation for founding a business in this sector turned out to be:
•      To increase income from businesses such as farming, horse breeding or training
•      Better capacity utilization, for example from buildings, land or horses
•      Diversification of business opportunities as traditional farming declines
•      To utilize a personal hobby as a business opportunity
All these motivations are part of making horse tourism important in building stronger
communities in rural areas.
Most companies start as a family business. Most of them are small, with three
employees on the average in summertime but only one in wintertime. About 50% of
the businesses are open year-around. Commonly the enterpreneurs have a classical
farming or horse breeding and training as furher sources of income. Other tourist
operations and teaching are also common sources of income. Most businesses offer a
variety of tours ranging from rental by the hour to tours of several days, but a few are
specializing in a particular service. In addition to riding many businesses offer other
services either for the public or exclusively for the customers of the horse based

The project of the Rural Tourism Department of Hólar has showed that such blend of a
research and a development project with cooperation with the people working in the
sector is essential for sustainable development of industry in rural areas.
There is a long tradition for riding in Iceland and the horsemanship is a part of the
culture. The operatiors in the business are aware that the guests prefere to take a part
in a real Icelandic horse travel in a beautiful nature. A variety of products are offered
and the busineses are firmly established. Therefore it is rather surprising that the
business skills, the awareness and emphasis on costs and value in many aspects of the
business operation seem to be limited.
Despite of limitations in the business environment of horserentals and riding tour
companies, the uniqueness of the Icelandic nature, culture and the Icelandic horse has
enormus potentials.

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