From Beijing, Iceland's ambassador to China likes to say, "You can be in a steaming spa in Reykjavik in 12 hours!"
She probably didn't need to tell China's most famous geologist, Premier Wen Jiabao, about the promise of Iceland's hot rocks before he flew to Reykjavik on Friday. And while the Chinese leader's schedule was probably too full to allow him to head straight for the steam, the volcanic island attracts a growing number of Chinese tourists who do just that.
Last year almost 9,000 Chinese came to Iceland on tourist visas, says Ambassador Kristin A. Arnadottir. That was an increase of about 80 percent over the previous year, and the latest figures compiled by the embassy suggest the trend continues. For the first three months of this year, Chinese tourists to the country were up 83 percent, a rate of growth not registered by any other foreign nationality.
So why are more Chinese going there?
"Because Iceland is the most beautiful and amazing country in the world," says embassy culture and trade representative Haflidi Saevarsson with a wide grin.
"And because patterns of Chinese tourism changing." Chinese visitors to Iceland have typically come as part of a bigger tour, but as more affluent Chinese become well-traveled, "they look for destinations where they can relax and have a slower, more meaningful experience" instead of racing from museums to cathedrals across Europe's biggest cities.
"Iceland is a fairly big island and it's the size of Jiangsu province," he says. "So you really need a week to see it all. Those around-the-island tours are now being offered in China, and there are more flights available from China to Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki." Those capitals are all a commuter flight away from Reykjavik.
Geysers including the original "geysir" that is the namesake of all of nature's hot-water fountains in the world - are popular attractions easily reached from the capital. Eruptions at Geysir can hurl boiling water up to 70 meters in the air, though eruptions can be infrequent.
Another geothermal wonder is Blue Lagoon. Because this famous hot spring is on a peninsula, says the embassy's Saevarsson, groundwater is soaked with seawater, so mineral content of the lower layer of the soil is higher. That gives the spa a reputation for therapeutic effects, making it particularly popular with Chinese tourist groups, who enjoy the spacelike landscape and white-colored water on the lava field.
Other attractions are served up at normal temperatures. Gullfoss waterfall is a photographer's delight, while historians enjoy day trips to Thingvellir, where the world's first parliament was established around 930 (lawmakers continued to convene there until 1798).