Tourism Riches Spark Battle Over James Bond’s Icelandic Lagoon

  • Icelandic PE investor takes government to court over ownership
  • Case seen as test of new government’s business credentials

It’s the latest chapter in an enduring Nordic saga pitting profit against nature.

But the legal battle that an investment company has set in motion over the ownership of Jokulsarlon, an otherworldly glacier lagoon on Iceland’s southeastern coast, is also a key test of the new government’s business credentials.

Jokulsarlon

Source: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

And while court proceedings are still at a preliminary stage, they’re already causing ambiguity in how it intends to manage one of its greatest assets.

This case "creates uncertainty" and "shows that there’s no clear policy on how private enterprise can be used to build up tourist sites," Frosti Olafsson, managing director of the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview in Reykjavik.

Iceland’s current economic boom is being fueled by a record number of visitors eager to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, detox or simply explore the locations of Game of Thrones. Tourism receipts for 2016 are estimated at 34 percent of total exports by Islandsbanki, the island’s second largest lender.

Jokulsarlon, which starred in an improbable James Bond car chase across a frozen lake flanked by spectacular blue icebergs, is now one of the country’s top tourist spots, attracting about half a million visitors each year. It is located next to the Vatnajokull National Park, a candidate UNESCO World Heritage site.

"There aren’t a lot of places where you have a glacier crawling into the sea," said Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson, managing director of the Icelandic Environment Association. This is a "natural gem" that still requires extensive research, "so it is only natural that it should be owned by all Icelanders,” he said.

The Story

The lagoon was put up for auction following years of disagreements between its 40 landowners and was bought on Nov. 11 for 1.52 billion kronur ($13 million) by Thule Investments, an Icelandic venture capital firm whose eclectic portfolio includes U.S. biotech and a local theater company. Thule’s chief executive officer, Gisli Hjalmtysson, was in 2012 accused of defrauding investors -- a charge that was eventually dismissed, according to Olafur Hauksson, the special prosecutor at the time.

The Finance Ministry then decided it would exercise its right of first refusal, granted under the Nature Conservation act, to match Thule’s offer and take over the purchase. The decision was made public on Jan. 9 by the office of then Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, who two days later was formally appointed prime minister at the helm of a new center-right government.

Thule Investments has now appealed the takeover to the local district court, alleging that the government’s announcement was issued beyond a deadline of 60 days after the date of the sale. The dispute centers around the exact date on which the original sale was completed.

Hrobjartur Jonatansson, an attorney representing Thule, questions whether the government has any plans to develop the site. He also argues that state ownership is not the best solution.

"If my clients win this case, we’ll get powerful investors pushing the project ahead," Jonatansson said in an interview. The idea is to improve access to the site and "build the facilities needed to utilize the area in the best way."

For a government under pressure from conservationists -- a powerful voice in a country famed for its rugged nature of volcanoes and geysers -- boosting the rush of people to the lagoon is not high on the agenda.

Environment Minister Bjort Olafsdottir acknowledged in an interview that there are currently no plans "to increase the number of tourists who visit Jokulsarlon." The lagoon would instead be incorporated into the nearby national park, with the emphasis placed on safety and preservation. She says the state purchase enjoyed cross-party support.

History of Attrition

Iceland has a history of bumping up against investors, although it has allowed aluminum producers to set up shop and access its abundant energy resources.

In 2012, it blocked a $200 million property investment bid by Chinese billionaire Huang Nubo, who wanted to develop a resort and a mountain park in the northeast. It’s now facing a legal challenge from two powerful U.S. funds with millions of dollars worth of assets trapped behind the country’s capital controls.

Jonatansson, the lawyer, says he hopes the standoff over the Jokulsarlon lagoon can be resolved "before the summer."

Like agent 007 in that 2002 movie, the investors would rather Die Another Day.

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