When I was on holiday in Iceland in 2006, one of our tour guides was Jón Gunnar Benjamínsson. His life changed forever in 2007 when he was involved in a car accident that left him with a spinal cord injury and paralyzed from the waist down. Not one to feel sorry for himself, he has since set up his own travel agency and is now the CEO of Iceland Unlimited. They have received great reviews for their tours. Although they cater for all types of tourist, they have a particular interest in accessible travel and tours in Iceland. I recently interviewed Jón Gunnar about his own story which I find quite inspirational, and about some of the issues and realities for disabled travellers in Iceland.
You were working as a tour guide before your accident in 2007. Did having a goal of returning to guiding help you to get through your rehabilitation?
Good question. I think it took me a full year to realize that I would actually be able to get back on track in life and become useful to society again. At first when you’re lying in your hospital bed, not even able to sit upright, you don’t think about returning to work again, you just think about surviving and getting through this storm. When the fog lifted and I started eying a return to “normal” life I decided to go to France and stay at a training facility for a full two months. That was my first step back to independence, so to speak. I was away from my family and friends and had to rely on myself for everything from cooking, washing my clothing and taking care of myself. That was a good and necessary experience. I think it was there that the first thoughts of starting my own company evolved although I never considered going back to guiding a real option due to my disadvantage. This was in late 2008, one year and two months from my accident.
You crossed the interior of Iceland by ATV to help raise awareness of the inaccessibility of some of the mountain huts, and in fact some changes were made as a direct result of your journey. Can you tell us more about this trip and did it play any part in helping you decide to set up your own travel company?
In the spring of 2009 I was sitting at a café in downtown Reykjavík and browsing the internet when I saw an ad from 66° North outdoor clothing manufacturer. They were advertising grants for “Good Deeds”, grants to help people do some good in society and where their brand would become useful. I decided to apply for this grant and my idea was to cross the highlands of Iceland on my ATV (All-Terrain-Vehicle) and on the way I would research how accessible highland facilities for tourists were for disabled travellers. After a month I got the news that my project was chosen as the winner. First price was part monetary and part clothing and outdoor equipment sponsorship from 66° North. I gathered 3 good friends to help me do this project. I and another friend were riding ATVs and two friends came on a follow up 4×4 vehicle behind us with fuel and other supplies.(You can review a video from this tour by clicking here) The trip was a great success and got good exposure in the press.
In the weeks that followed, I was able to get another grant from the official Iceland Tourist Board to fix accessibility in three main highland facilities that are open for tourists in the summertime. That made the project worthwhile and this is something I’m very proud of. Right after this project was over, I started to work on Iceland Unlimited. I was full of confidence after this highland trip and felt that I was ready to make my move towards setting up my own business. I got into a facility that supports start-up companies to take their first steps. It was a very creative and energetic environment to be in and good to show up there every morning and keep the mind occupied.
Does it take more time for you to organise holidays for customers who require special access?
No, not any more. Now we’ve done this so many times and we’ve designed the itineraries carefully so that they are ideal for disabled travellers. We also know which of our partners to contact right from the start and we have our own hand controls for the rental cars so everything is ready.
Is there a growth in demand for travel to Iceland from disabled customers?
Yes, we receive more and more requests from disabled travellers every year. We want to make this service more visible on our site and push it on the social media to get the word out there that accessible tours are something we are offering. I’m confident that this will play a much bigger part in my business in the years to come and Iceland Unlimited is ready for it.
What do you like about working in tourism, and what are the challenges?
Right from the start I liked working in the tourism industry. Firstly, I love my country very much. This unbelievably beautiful yet rugged and fragile nature that surrounds us lucky enough to live here has defined the person that I am today. I’ve been spending time in the outdoors since I was a little boy, fishing and hunting, hiking and crossing the highlands and lately, travelling wherever the road takes me on my trusty Polaris ATV. Introducing Iceland and all it has to offer to my guests is something I take pride in and enjoy very much. Secondly, I like to believe that I’m a people’s person. I like meeting new and interesting people and that is indeed the case in this business.
Do you have any goals for your business over the next few years?
My goal from the start was to provide personal and exceptionally good service to my customers so that after their tour, they would leave Iceland with nothing but fond memories of Iceland and Iceland Unlimited. Slowly, word started to spread online that my tours were of good value and quality and I received more and more requests. Our growth has been steady over the years but not too fast for us to cope with it and so we have always been able to stay true to that initial goal of Iceland Unlimited Travel Service.
Part two of this interview will follow next week.