Export Trade by Jón Ásbergsson
Visitors to Iceland
often marvel at the wide variety of foreign merchandise on offer in a country that perhaps prides itself most on its ancient culture and close contact with an unspoiled environment. Here you can find all the best-known names in fashion, cars, electronic equipment and food and beverages. The fact is that Iceland has become a very consumer-conscious nation with one of the highest standards of living in the world. And Iceland depends more on foreign trade
than most other nations. Trade not only brings us consumer goods from abroad, but has also helped us to develop a modern society with a highly educated population and all the benefits of the welfare state. Recent OECD statistics show that Icelanders have the sixth highest consumer power per person and the magazine International Living ranked Iceland fourth on its quality of life index, ahead of all European countries except Switzerland.
All this has been possible because of foreign trade and a strong export base. The Icelandic economy is one of the few in the Western world that is primarily based on renewable natural resources; fish from the rich, cold and clean fishing grounds around the island, and hydroelectric energy from our rivers and streams. But Iceland also has a number of export companies with very interesting products in a wide range of areas such as food-processing equipment, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, information technology, biotechnology and biomedical engineering. Service industries are also playing a bigger role, with tourism being the country’s fastest-growing foreign currency earner.
Marine products, however, are still the backbone of the economy and account for just over 42% of foreign currency earnings. In 2003 Iceland exported marine products to the value of ISK 113,000 million from a catch of close to two million metric tons. Iceland is the 12th largest fishing nation in the world and has the highest productivity levels in world fisheries. Fishing and fish processing account for an estimated 10% of the GDP and employ about 8% of the labour force. Seafood processing is highly varied and the products are sold in all major markets in Europe, the USA and the Far East. The fishing fleet is equipped with advanced technology and the same is true for the processing facilities on land.
Although marine products have been the leading export items from Iceland for some time and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future, other industries have been establishing themselves as highly important currency earners. Manufacturing industry supplies about 34% of the total revenue of goods exported, the most important products being aluminium and ferrosilicon. Rapid technological development and progress in all areas of fisheries has also spawned a flourishing secondary industry, which specializes in the design, manufacture and marketing of fishing gear and fish processing equipment. Today this sector is the main growth area among Icelands’s manufacturing industries, and some of the companies within it are world leaders in their fields. Medicine, medical equipment and prosthetics have also increased their share of the exports. Exports of computer software have skyrocketed in recent years, and Iceland´s well educated computer specialists are gaining international recognition. Today 4% of GDP comes from the computer sector, a level similar to that of other western European countries.
Iceland is self-sufficient in meat, dairy products and eggs, and the principal crops are hay and potatoes. The most common vegetables, flowers and some fruits are cultivated in greenhouses heated with geothermal hot water and steam. Most farm production goes into domestic consumption, but there is a growing interest in exports of Icelandic meat, which due to the purity of the grazing pasture meets the highest standards for organic production. Highland-grazed mountain lamb is a particular delicacy, combining excellent flavour with minimum surplus fat content, which makes it ideal for today´s health-conscious public. In the past few years there has also been a growing export market for the Icelandic horse for sport. The Icelandic horse is strong, sure footed, intelligent and easy to handle and several thousand visitors come to Iceland every year to go pony-trekking or to visit horse shows to buy their own horses.
One reason the air and general environment in Iceland are so pure is that clean and renewable energy sources are largely used instead of fossil fuels. Iceland´s topography and climate combine to make it one of Europe´s richest nations in terms of hydroelectric potential. Only about 15% of the estimated economically harnessable hydroelectric potential of 50,000 GWh/year has been utilized to date, but this still meets most ordinary electricity needs as well as supplying power-intensive aluminium and ferrosilicon industries, which account for about 14% of total exports.
Reserves of geothermal steam and water, another renewable and non-polluting resource, are another major environment-friendly source of energy. Natural hot water supplies power to export industries processing diatomite, sea-salt and alginate from dried seaweed, and is also used to heat 86% of homes in the country, along with greenhouses and year-round swimming pools. While in Iceland you should not miss the opportunity to swim in one of these open swimming pools, which are to be found all around the country.
Jón Ásbergsson, Managing Director of Promote Iceland
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