Tourists are arriving in record numbers to the safe and delightfully zany, Bjork-loving shores of Iceland. But it’s hard being so hot—especially if your popularity is as meteoric as Iceland’s, finds our featured contributor Paula Froelich.
“You’re in my waaaay,” an American woman with hair tangled up in the fox fur hood of her Canada Goose down jacket whined to me. “I’m trying to take a picture,” she said, before turning to her boyfriend and stage-whispering, “She needs to move. I want to take a picture and I don’t want her in it.”
I’d just finished exploring the inside of an abandoned Icelandic turf house that was conveniently situated off the Golden Circle section of the country’s Ring Road— which also happened to be on private land owned by a friend of my tour guide, Oli.
I’d come out of the run down building and unknowingly walked straight into the woman’s shot.
“Dude, I’m sorry, but gimme a second here,” I said, explaining, “I’m taking a video to document the old houses… I’m almost done.”
The woman mumbled something that sounded vaguely like “rude” before angling a shot so that I wasn’t in it and stomping away, boyfriend in tow.
“You’re the one on private land without permission!” I said. The two kept walking, got in their car, parked on the side of the road past the property gate, slammed their doors and drove off while flipping me the bird.
I was annoyed, but in retrospect, I can’t really blame her.
Most of these visitors were Americans and a majority flew over for just two to three days… not a lot of time to jam in everything on the schedule —Vik’s black-sand beaches, the famous Seljalandsfoss waterfall, the visitor center at Þorvaldseyri, and the Sólheimajökull glacier. Tensions can run high when an unexpected stop is made and the trip around the two-lane highway that is the Circle, which can be driven in three hours, ends up being eight to nine. Add in the jumble of tour busses and rental cars, unpredictable weather and no crossing lanes, it’s enough to make even the most sanguine person grumpy.
Due to terrorism and Zika, Iceland, once Europe’s ignored, homely step child, has become Europe’s most sought-after prom queen.
And there seem to be a lot of grumpy people on the Ring Road these days—forcing Iceland to ask, what happens when you have too many tourists? What if you are too popular?
Due to terrorism and Zika, Iceland, once Europe’s ignored, homely stepchild, has become Europe’s most sought-after prom queen. Last year, tourists blew off previously hot destinations like France, England, Italy, the Caribbean and South America for the safe and delightfully zany, Bjork-loving shores of Iceland, and in record numbers.
But it’s hard being so hot—especially if your popularity is as meteoric as Iceland’s.
Over the past few decades, and even more intensely in the last ten years, Iceland has experienced a Pygmalion-esque journey from a small, often-overlooked country into the belle of the Tourism Ball.
“We were one of the first companies to offer adventure tourism ten years ago,” said Oli’s boss, Björg Árnadóttir, the owner of the high-end tour company, Midgard Adventure. “Now it seems like everyone has one.”
“The growth year-on-year has been huge, and 2016 was the biggest one yet,” said Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir, the newly designated minister of tourism. “Tourism is now one-third of the economy—bigger than fishing. It’s a different reality we have now.”
The reality is: the onslaught of photo-snapping, puffin-doll-loving tourists has caused a few problems, including environmental concerns, the cracking of an aging infrastructure, and a housing crisis.
With only one hotel room for every five people that visit the country, the boom has caused a rush on Airbnb properties.
My friend David Kelso, a Brit who has lived in Iceland for two decades and now runs an adventure tour group, Arctic Fox, said, “There aren’t enough hotel rooms in Reykjavik or in the countryside to support all the visitors—so a lot of wealthy people are buying up property and Airbnb’ing them out, which has driven up home prices and rent. A lot of Icelanders can’t afford to live in Reykjavik anymore and they’re mad.”
Locals were so mad they staged several protests around the capital city last summer—during peak tourist season. And the embarrassed government listened.
“Since January 1st, people now need to register their flats if they are going to rent them out on Airbnb and they can only do it for 90 days a year and for up to 2 million Icelandic krona (US$18,260) a year,” Gylfadóttir said, the head of the newly formed Ministry of Tourism. “If the Airbnb income exceeds that, they have to register as a business and now people can only have two (short-term rental properties) at a time.”
Whether or not that will ease local ire has yet to be seen, but Reykjavik’s skyline is changing daily with new hotel construction. The newest addition, Canopy by Hilton, opened its doors in January and it’s just one of many. According to Gylfadóttir, Iceland will have doubled the amount of hotel rooms within the next year.
But it’s not just major hotel chains trying to get in on the action.
As Icelanders come to grips with their new reality, people like Árnadóttir, are looking to take advantage of the boom. The owner of Midgard Adventure is building a high-end hostel outside of Þórsmörk, an area currently served only by the Hotel Ranga.
As of now, most people who want to catch a glimpse of the northern lights will either try and secure a room in the four-star Hotel Ranga (which, due to the lack of competition and no light pollution in the area, is booked out months in advance)—or drive up from Reykjavik for dinner (and, hopefully see the aural display after, then make the hour-plus haul back to town).
“There needs to be more options,” Árnadóttir said, “So we’re providing one.”
Meanwhile, Gylfadóttir concedes the country has to do better with the environmental catastrophes that come along with curious visitors—and that also means sharing the love outside of Reykjavik and the Golden Circle.
According to business news website Quartz, spots once rarely visited are now feeling the effects of overtourism: “The thundering waterfall at Gullfoss, Þingvellir National Park and the geothermal hot spot Geysir, are now crowded with hordes of tour buses and rental cars. Tourists have tended to hop over roped-off land, trampled protected areas, strewn trash throughout the wilderness, vandalized landmarks—and even relieved themselves outdoors. A lack of public toilets around the country led to a spate of alarming headlines in local media this year, from ‘Lack of toilets leads to pooping on famous graves’ [in Þingvellir National Park] and ‘Tourists defecate in town center.’ Meanwhile, the summer of 2015 saw a popular hot spring, Hrunalaug, sustain so much damage from tourists that landowners considered bulldozing it.”
“We are tackling these issue head on,” Gylfadóttir said. “My main focus will be on building infrastructure—roads, hotels, destinations—and I want to take some action in getting better control on the numbers of tourists going to each place. We need to keep in mind the social tolerance of the local people and build the industry while defending the situation. Every Icelander knows what tourism has done for us—it saved us after the crash, but we need to do it responsibly and have the tourists go around the country to other places, other than just the Golden Circle.”
So yes, Europe’s prom queen is having some growing pains, but she’s working on them. In the meantime, 2017 is set to beat the 2016 record.
And if you’re one of the millions of visitors planning a trip, here’s a tip: Skip the Golden Circle— there are waterfalls and black-sand beaches all over the island. Hire a company like Midgard Adventure and have them take you off road, or go hiking in Thorsmork and spend the night in the Volcano Huts. Explore the Western fjords, or the far east of the country. Fly over the volcanoes, lagoons and glaciers in a helicopter before landing at your own private Blue Lagoon, or sail over to the Westman Islands.
There is still adventure to be had in Iceland and places yet to be discovered—just skip the tour buses and Ring Road.