Today’s subject is one of those hot potato subjects I know better than write about but somehow feel a strong urge to address none the less. What sparked this post is both concerns people have expressed in e-mail communication with us and a discussion taking place within Iceland at the moment.
For a long long time Iceland was just a rock in the middle of the Atlantic ocean and nobody knew or cared we existed. OK, a bit of an exaggeration but still – we were not exactly the center of the universe. Then came Björk who was just interesting and quirky enough for people to want to see the place that produced her. Then it was Sigur Rós and the financial crash and the eruption in Eyjafjallajökul and Instagram and Of Monsters And Men and Justing Bieber and Kim and Kanye and *BOOM* we were on the map.
In the eyes of Icelanders as a nation we are the map but that’s a whole different discussion (Ísland – Bezt í heimi).
But are there too many tourists in Iceland? This is not an easy question to answer. There are many sides to this question and everyone sees it through their own unique lenses. I see it as a someone who has worked in tourism for 10+ years, who has traveled quite a bit out of the country and who can see first hand how the tourist boom has affected this place that I call home. You, on the other hand, have the view of the outsider with the benefits and disadvantages of that. Neither one of us is right or wrong, we can only share things from our point of view and hope that our opponent (not that I’m picking a fight here) can empathize and understand even though they have a different opinion.
Question: Is Iceland overcrowded with tourists?
It’s projected that Iceland will welcome 2.3 million tourists this year. In 2010 it was less than 500.000. This is a big change in a short span of time no matter how you look at it and the 20-30% growth per year for the last 6-7 years has been staggering. Most people don’t disagree that tourism saved Iceland after the economic crash in 2008. We needed the foreign currency badly and tourists were happy to take advantage of the devastating mess we were in that was partly due to the devaluation of our currency after the crash. Partly! Things became horribly expensive for us while the tourists found Iceland cheap for the first time in history. Relatively, at least.
Before and just after the crash, downtown Reykjavík was known for legendary music venues and a vibrant art scene, charming old houses and friendly inhabitants. What people choose not to remember is that it was also kind of dirty in certain areas, there were a lot of buildings that were abandoned or needed serious renovation and half of the shops in Laugavegur were empty or going out of business. As the tourism grew more bars and restaurants were opened, more stores lasted more than a few months in Laugavegur and fewer and fewer shops were empty.
I can’t even compare how lively Reykjavík is now compared to 10 years ago but not everyone sees that as something positive. Many complain the downtown area has become too busy and too touristy and that you can’t find a local there to save your life. The locals you do find are friendly enough but not inviting you back to their house for a party like the tourists of yesteryear promised.
The most obvious and understandable thing people complain about is the fact that many of the legendary places we once loved have now been replaced with hotels and tourist shops. And speaking of hotels, they have popped up like mushrooms and the once cool and quirky community in Laugavegur has been pushed out at every opportunity. The money forces have been in control, not the people of Reykjavík. It all happened so fast that people didn’t start thinking about serious resistance until it was basically too late. All of a sudden we have Donkin Donuts in Laugavegur, H&M opening up a big store by the harborfront and Hard Rock producing (allegedly) mediocre burgers (have no personal experience of this myself since I refuse to go there) at gourmet prices.
So the tourist boom has definitely changed Reykjavík. Some of the changes have been good, others terrible. I think part of the problem is that Icelanders look at this a uniquely Icelandic problem. I’m guessing those who have lived through gentrification in most of the key cities around the world would disagree. I also think the mistake we as a city made was to not have a plan for development ready when the first signs of this started to show. The city of Reykjavík could have made the decision to preserve the spirit of the downtown Reykjavík area better – all they needed was the will. And the agility maybe to make quick decisions at the time of need instead of forming a committee around every subject and hope it solves itself somehow.
I haven’t even touched on the devastated housing market where part of the problem is AirBnB and how it has affected the ability of young people in Reykjavík to buy or rent. AirBnB is not solely to blame but according to new reports it plays a significant role.
But I’m an optimist. I think Reykjavík is going through growing pains now and that we will find a balance. I can already see it happening. Areas that used to be quite boring are being brought to life and the downtown area is growing. We need to figure out how to address the housing crisis but when we do I think we’ll see some interesting developments. Creativity will always find a way
But what about Iceland as a whole, are there too many tourists in Iceland?
To be fair, most tourists that visit Iceland never see more than just Reykjavík and then the Golden Circle and the south coast. If they are feeling particularly adventurous they might also visit the Snæfellsnes or the Borgarfjörður area. It’s not strange to understand why: These areas have been marketed heavily to tourists, most of the tours out of Reykjavík focus on them and it’s convenient due to the relatively short distances.
If you just visit these areas there’s no wonder why you would feel that Iceland is overcrowded. When everyone goes to the exact same places – crowds will amass. What most people don’t realize is that there’s so much more to Iceland than just those areas. Anywhere you go it’s stunning and breathtaking. You may not tick as many places off the elusive must sees in Iceland list by going to the Westfjords for example but you will be rewarded with amazing natural beauty and authenticity that it’s harder to find in the south these days. Not impossible, just harder.
I know someone will say: but if you travel to Iceland in the summer the whole country is very busy. That is true but the summer is 2-3 months out of the year. Outside of the summer season, the East fjords are practically deserted. And I just went to Akureyri and the surrounding areas at the end of February and I was amazed at all thing things going on up there and how few people were there to enjoy it. Which was surprising to me because I’m more enlightened about these things than the average tourist so I felt that I should have known about it all.
Iceland has changed, though, there’s no denying it. It’s not the same place I started writing about 13+ years ago and some of the changes have not been for the better. I miss the times where nature was more untouched and where you weren’t met with 10 warning signs when approaching areas we as locals knew were dangerous. I miss the times where you didn’t have to pay to park in Þingvellir and you could drive around Iceland feeling safer than I do now, knowing how many inexperienced drivers are out there on our roads. Areas that have been closed off for crowd control or because they have been treated disrespectfully. The examples are plentiful.
But the short simplified answer is that Iceland is not overcrowded with tourists Especially not as a whole and in relative terms. Some areas are reaching their pain thresholds though and we definitely need to spend more money and effort on infrastructure and planning for the future. But it’s not an impossible task. All we need to do is to make a collective decision as a nation and follow it through.
As the owner and writer for one of the most popular travel website in Iceland, I feel very responsible for many of our problems. I mean, I’ve spent the biggest part of my adult years writing about my love for Iceland which has attracted many people to visit. In the last years, though, I’ve tried to be very mindful when it comes to the power of having such a big audience. I don’t think I would be so focused on this if it wasn’t for my tourisms-related upbringing working for Hostelling International Iceland for 7+ years. They are a socially responsible non-profit organization who are a leading force when it comes to sustainability in tourism in Iceland and I don’t think I would see things the same way if I had started out working in a more profit-driven environment. I didn’t always love working there (I now understand that I was probably always supposed to work for myself) but working for them showed me that you can run a successful operation without compromising your values and beliefs.
I’ve tried to educate people through the blog (which has sometimes resulted in alienation because people deem me too boring and not adventurous enough) and have a direct conversation about these matters with you, the travelers. I’ve made mistakes along the way but I try to always learn from them and am now hyper aware of the problems we’re facing. I don’t think Iceland would necessarily be better off if I closed down this blog and found a job elsewhere. Tourists would still come and someone else would occupy the space I once was in. And I want to contribute in the way I realistically can and serves us, our customers and the whole of Iceland the best way possible. I strongly believe that tourism can flourish even if it’s done in a sustainable and socially responsible way. Actually, I think that is the only way for it to flourish.
This is easier to say than implement but I will never stop trying. The day I do stop, I hope you have the good sense to turn elsewhere.
I want to end this (maybe way too) long post (that lost its focus somewhere along the way) by encouraging you to reflect on how you can be socially responsible travelers. You as travelers hold great power and you can vote with your wallet. If you would like Laugavegur and the surrounding streets to remain its former quirky self: Don’t go to Dunkin Donuts and the puffin stores. If you want Iceland to stay rugged and without walls or big fences: Stay on the marked paths and don’t ignore the small rope that has been enough to keep people at bay for decades. If you want to help young Icelandic people with their housing issues or the very least help Iceland battle tax evasion and such: Put pressure on your AirBnB host to obtain a license and pay their taxes. Or stay at hotels – whatever feels comfortable for you. And dare to be different by wandering off the beaten path.