Anxious Adventuring: Blue Lagoon and the Construction of Self
There is really no reason to be anxious about visiting Iceland’s Blue Lagoon. After all, it is supposed to be relaxing. Still, I had some misgivings about it. For the most part, this stemmed from my concept of self. I have never been to spa before. Spas seem like one of those things for “other” people. When I say “other” people, I mean, well-kept, normal, better off, thin, Instagram ready people. I see myself as abnormal, weird looking, not thin, and not well-off. Spas seem indulgent and feminine, not that that femininity or indulgence is wrong. I worried that perhaps there would be social norms or expectations that I would not meet. Secondly, it is spendy. The most basic “Comfort” package costs around $94. This includes a silica mud mask, free drink, entrance, and locker/towel use. I worried that maybe choosing the “cheapo” package was a stigmatized choice or worse, there would be hidden costs. Like many things that I feel uncertainty over, it turned out to be a good experience and insightful about how a person constructs their “self” while traveling.
My day started with a very early flight from Oslo to Reykjavik, so I arrived in Iceland feeling exhausted but also thankful that visiting the Blue Lagoon was the first and main activity of my day. I had pre-booked my visit to the Blue Lagoon and the booking included an airport transfer to the Blue Lagoon and then another to the Reykjavik. Because the Blue Lagoon is located between Keflavik airport and Reykjavik, it seems that many people either visit the Blue Lagoon while entering or leaving Iceland. This low-key activity gave me something to do when I otherwise might not have been up for much more. There was a bit of confusion over which of the many buses outside of the airport was my transfer as well as some waiting outside in the windy cold that served as a welcome to the country. But, once I figured out the appropriate bus (different tour operators use different busing companies) I was on my way across the black lava fields to my destination. Blue Lagoon is located about 20 minutes away from the airport. Once there, I joined the throngs of fellow tourists exiting their respective buses and lined up to check my luggage. If I remember rightly, it was about $5 to rent a locker for my luggage.
After dropping my luggage off, I entered the main complex of the Blue Lagoon, where I again l joined a que. This time, the line was for my entry wristband. The wristband serves as a key to a smaller locker (for purses or personal items), for entry and access to the amenities that come with the package that a person has purchased, and to pay for items (since it is connected to a person’s credit card). While I stored my suitcase at the baggage check point for a fee, smaller items can be stored for free in the locker room. The locker was large enough for a backpack of items such as dry clothes, purse with wallet, cosmetics, personal towel, etc. The locker room is divided by gender, but trans or non-binary individuals who wish for private space for changing can ask for this upon request. In the locker room itself there are shower stalls with curtains and walls, so it is private enough that a person does not need to get naked with others if they are uncomfortable with that prospect. Other reports mention that there is a staff who monitors the showers to make sure that everyone is clean when they enter the Blue Lagoon. However, I did not notice any staff tasked with this duty.
With changing complete, I headed off to the geothermal pool area. Before entering the pool, one must leave their sandals or shoes behind, as well as deposit their towel (which is included with the fee) on a hook. The thermal pool was expansive enough that even though it was busy, visitors were spread out. The demographics of the visitors seemed to be a mixture of older people and young people, with no children present at that time even though children over two years of age and older are allowed with a parent or guardian. The tourists skewed towards white, young, and female at the time of my visit, but there was a number of older men and young men in mixed gender groups. According to research regarding spa tourism, women make up the majority of spa visitors. In a survey of spa goers at a resort in Crete, Greece, a convenience sample of spa users in a spa lobby consisted of 67% women and the most common age category of respondents was 45 to 54 to years old. Most respondents, or 47%, had completed a Bachelor’s degree. The most common income category at 39% was 30,000 to 50,000 euros per year, followed by 28% making above 50,000 euros yearly income (Trihas and Konstantarou, 2016). While it is hard to generalize from a single study, it seems that spas would attract at least middle income individuals due to the fact that it is discretionary spending that lower income individuals may not be able to afford. In the United States, 78% of spa visitors are women and the average age is 45. Kelly and Smith (2016) review research which suggests that this may be because women are tasked with more care work which lends itself to wanting to relax and because they feel more pressure to be healthy and attractive. They also suggest that this age is part of the U-bend, wherein individuals are believed to be less happy in their 40s and 50s (Kelly and Smith, 2016). Personally, I would hypothesize that women likely have more disposable income in their 40s, as this is when income peaks for women (Elkins, 2018). This might lend itself to more spending on health and leisure. This age group may enjoy more capacity for leisure and health, as children may be older or grown. My perception was that the tourists at the Blue Lagoon skewed towards under age 40 at the time of my visit. While this is younger than the average spa visitor elsewhere, this may be in part because Iceland attracts younger tourists. The average age of a North American tourist to Iceland is 39.1 years old. The average age of an Asian tourist to Iceland is 34.6 years old and from Eastern Europe it is 31.7 years old. In a survey conducted by the Iceland Tourist Board, only 1 in 10 respondents were over the age of 55. Most respondents were between the age of 24 and 34, followed by 35 to 54 (Oladottir, 2018). The demographics of my visit may also be unique to that moment in time.
In Trihas and Konstantarou’s (2016) study of a Crete spa, most visitors were there for relaxation, followed by physical health and beauty. This is consistent with other literature they reviewed wherein tourists were often motivated by relaxation and relief. Other important factors in the literature review include novelty and self-exploration. The self is a complicated concept. Some travel research has posited that travel helps one find their self, but the self is not a fixed thing that one finds. Rather, it is is something constructed through the process of travel. One way of visioning the “self” was put forth by Sirgy and Su s as self-image (how one sees their self), ideal self (how one would like to see themself), social self (how a person believes others perceive their self), and ideal social self (how others would like to be seen). Ideal self and social self pattern consumption decisions (Kelly and Smith, 2016). As for myself, my visit to the Blue Lagoon was motivated by curiosity, fear of missing out, and relaxation. On one hand, since I had never visited a spa before, I was curious what that experience would be like. Additionally, the Blue Lagoon is often framed as a “must see” tourist attraction in Iceland. I felt that if I did not visit it, I may miss out on an important experience. Because I am always uncertain when I will visit a country again, I am influenced by travel books, blogs, or travel websites which list “must see” locations. Finally, I figured it would be a relaxing experience, even if the experience was not familiar and included some stresses of fitting in or uncertain norms. The Blue Lagoon is more than a geothermal spa, it is an attraction in its own right, and I assume that there are others there who are also unfamiliar with spas but who chose it as a destination because of its reputation as an important tourist attraction. My hypothesis contrasts with Trihas and Konstantarou’s (2016) study which found that 35% of the spa visitors in Crete had visited a spa at least ten times. While I cannot test these predictions without doing actual research, this might be an area for someone else to explore.
While visiting, I didn’t feel particularly out of place, as people seemed too involved in their social groups or relaxation to pay much attention to others. Nor did I feel stigmatized for choosing the cheaper option. The electronic bracelets are color coded depending upon the package that one chooses. However, most people had the same blue wristband that I had, meaning that most people were not spending hundreds of dollars on their experience. Like me, many were probably content to just be there. The lagoon itself was amazing. The air was very chilly, as it was a late September day. However, the water was 100 degrees F and perfect. I sat there, soaking up the beautiful, milky blue water. I tried out the silica mud mask, which I felt was completely adequate for my visit. If a person wants to spend more money, they can try out other masks. Additional masks can be obtained at a mask station. The Blue Lagoon is a mixture of sea water and ground water. The water is heavy with silica, which forms a white mud on the bottom of the pool, from which the mask is derived. Blue green algae are also found in the water. The water can actually turn from blue-white to green in the summer due to algae growth and visitors can pay extra for an algae mask. Aside from algae and silica, the water has 2.5% salinity (Haraldson, 2014). In contrast, the average salinity of ocean water is 3.5%.
Like many people at the Lagoon, I took selfies. Taking selfies to document the experience seemed like an important ritual for the younger, female visitors. Like others, I tried to capture myself with a mask on my face, as this represented to me both the novelty of trying something new and the constructed luxury of existing in that space. Warren and Batarags (2018) pointed out that many of the photos of the Blue Lagoon are curated to cut out certain elements of the visit. For instance, most people do not photograph the nearby power station, local highway, or the buildings that surround the lagoon. This gives a false impression that the lagoon is located in the middle of nature. It is true that I did not photograph those elements of the experience either. I suppose I have internalized the norms of what sort of photos one should take of the Blue Lagoon. But, honestly, I did not find it to be a jarring environment spoiled by buildings. The buildings are dark colored and modern looking and seem to blend well with the natural landscape. Cutting out buildings and highways constructs the scene of the selfie. Goffman noted that individuals present a sense of self to generate a desired impression. Taking selfies entails creating content for an imagined audience, editing and framing this content in order to highlight positive ideas one has about themselves. In one study, 45% of UK, U.S., and Chinese students surveyed felt that looking good in a selfie was important. For some sefie takers, impression management might be accomplished through filters or lighting (Nguyen and Barbour, 2017). In the case of the Blue Lagoon, it is accomplished through what is in the view of the camera and what is not. Including buildings, the highway, or power plant creates a stage wherein the self is situated in more mundane environs. The impression that is consciously or subconsciously constructed through selfies is that the location is natural and relaxing and more individual and exclusive than it may actually be.
Aside from taking selfies, I took time to enjoy a drink from the poolside drink station. Since my band included a free drink, I tried out a strawberry skyr smoothie. I will say that drinking a thick yogurt drink in 100 degree water isn’t actually that refreshing. The beverage was a bit too heavy for the heat. Technically, skyr is consumed like yogurt, but is actually a soft sour cheese. So, imagine choking down a thick, sour cheese drink while sweating in a steaming pool. Well, I wanted an “Icelandic” experience. Still, I felt fabulous drinking yogurt and saturating myself with the hot silica infused water. One benefit of the cheap package is that, like all of the packages, visitors are allowed to stay as long as they like. So, I stayed a few hours. I left the water a few times to drink water from a nearby fountain. At least the water was free!
As popular and luxuriant as Blue Lagoon is, it isn’t actually a naturally occuring hot spring. Rather, Blue Lagoon is actually formed by the wastewater from the nearby Svartsengi power plant. Svartsengi, which means black meadow, is located in a lava field that is thought to have been formed by volcanic eruptions that occured in 1226 on the Reykjanes peninsula (Bilba, 2013). The black landscape, which is speckled with green patches of moss, creates an otherworldly backdrop for the vibrant lagoon. The power plant is visible from the Blue Lagoon and is itself a wonder, as it uses steam and salt water to create energy that provides electricity and hot water to thousands of homes in Iceland. The steam is accessed by drilling 1800 M beneath the earth, where the water is 465 degrees F because it is warmed by magma from the spreading of the Eurasian and American plates. Steam is converted to hot air and salt and water are filtered from the steam (Bilba, 2013). It was the first geothermal power plant in the world to produce both heat and electricity. It was constructed during the 1970s as a state and municipally funded project to serve the region’s energy needs as well as provide electricity and hot water to Keflavik airport (Blue Lagoon-The History, 2019). The Blue Lagoon was meant to be a waste lagoon for water discharged from the plant, but the lava field proved impermeable to the water due to sedimentation, resulting in the formation of an expansive pool. Because of this blocked drainage, new holes must be regularly bored into the lava field to alleviate some water build up (Blue Lagoon-The History, 2019). The geothermal plant is not open to the public, but according to Tripadvisor, a person might be able to arrange a private tour by contacting the plant. Thus, the Blue Lagoon does not necessary have to be viewed as luxurious, feminine, or middle class. It could be framed as an industrial wonder fit for working class people of all genders. image of Svartsengi Power Plant from: https://www.nat.is/blue-lagoon-history/
The Blue Lagoon began to take off in the 1980s, when psoriasis patients began bathing in the water as an experimental cure (Blue Lagoon-The History, 2019). The Iceland Psoriasis Society built the first rudimentary shelters along the lagoon and in 1987 the first public bathing facility opened. Blue Lagoon Ltd was established in 1992 and took over the facilities in 1994. Scientific studies conducted between 1992-1996 provided the data necessary for Icelandic Health Authorities to declare it an official psoriasis treatment facility (Guðmundsdóttir, Brynjólfsdóttir and Albertsson, 2010). The water is believed to relieve symptoms of eczema, arthritis, and sciatica and Iceland’s social security system covers visits to Blue Lagoon for medical treatment (Blue Lagoon-The History, 2019). Thus, before it was a tourist attraction, it was used for medical purposes. In 1999, construction upgraded the lagoon so that it is now regularly fed water and features amenities such as a cafe and restaurant (Blue Lagoon-The History, 2019). Today, the geothermal brine is replaced every 40 hours (Guðmundsdóttir, Brynjólfsdóttir and Albertsson, 2010) and the facility, which was updated in 2007, features massages, sauna, a shop, private retreat spa, hotels, and clinic. In 2017, 1.3 million tourists visited the Blue Lagoon. Aside from tourism, Blue lagoon algae are harvested for a variety of purposes ranging from fish food to cosmetics. Silica and salts are also harvested from the water for cosmetic purposes (Guðmundsdóttir, Brynjólfsdóttir and Albertsson, 2010). Up to 4,000 people visit the Blue Lagoon each day, but when I visited in September, it seemed far less busy.
The Blue Lagoon is disparaged for being a tourist trap and over priced. Both of these things are true. 31% of visitors to Iceland pay a visit to the Blue Lagoon, but 59% of visitors travel to Gulfoss/Geysir and 50% visit Thingvellir national park. EVERYTHING in Iceland feels like a tourist trap, in that, well, most tourists travel there to partake in several popular activities and the country attracts millions of tourists. If a person wants to avoid tourist traps, they might instead travel to Chad. So, to some degree, most people will likely visit something popular while visiting Iceland. Popular things are often denigrated as inauthentic or pedestrian. Travel advice often hinges upon finding the unique, quaint, out of the way, and authentic. The Blue Lagoon is authentically the Blue Lagoon in the same way Disneyland is authentically Disneyland. It is an experience and one that constructs itself as healthy and indulgent, but in reality is a popularized pool of industrial wastewater. Yet, to critique it for being popular and inauthentic is an exercise of cultural capital. According to Bourdieu, cultural capital is the tastes, knowledge, practices, and skills which are given value by elites. These things are transmitted through socialization by elite peers, family, or education systems. Tastes in food, music, clothing, hobbies, etc.represent cultural capital and are a source of status. Everyone is socialized with certain skills, knowledge, or dispositions known as habitus. Habitus patterns a person’s relationship to cultural capital (Holt, 1998). For instance, a person who is not very knowledgeable about Italian food might visit Olive Garden and feel that it is an authentic Italian experience. The tastes of this individual might be denigrated as low class, ordinary, or uneducated because of their preference for a mass chain restaurant over a locally owned Italian restaurant or a trip to Italy itself. Only a person with access to certain skills, networks, or knowledge would be able to discern what is deemed authentic by cultural elites. Of course, having economic capital is necessary for accessing so called authentic experiences. Returning to the Blue Lagoon, I had misgivings about visiting since I was not socialized to visit a spa. It was not part of my upbringing or education and represents a sort of cultural capital that I lack. At the same time, because the Blue Lagoon is so popular, it lacks the authentic veneer of more obscure geothermal spas in Iceland, the ones which locals ACTUALLY visit and the ones which are ACTUALLY naturally occurring. It straddles the elitism of being expensive and the “low” culture of mass tourism. But, because it can be both elite (with hotel stays costing over $1000) and popular (visited by millions), it appeals to a wide audience who can customize their experience based upon their sense of self, economic capital, and cultural capital.
With that said, I would say that my visit to the Blue Lagoon was relaxing and interesting. It challenged my sense of self (viewing myself as not a spa person) and took me out of my comfort zone (as someone who has not visited a spa). I can appreciate the sense of self-care or pampering that comes with a visit and have since visited other geothermal spas. To increase my sense of being a “spa person” I have tried to reframe these experiences as interesting geological or industrial phenomena. This creates the potential for them to be more gender neutral or at least less associated with beauty and wellness. I lack the cultural capital, or for that matter, gender capital, to fully enjoy or embrace the experience. Without overthinking it, it was relaxing to submerge in the warm water and novel to be in such a unique place. I would recommend it to visitors of Iceland and also recommend paying attention to the demographics and behaviors of fellow visitors!
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