In 2018, there were six tourists in Iceland for every local. As overtourism becomes an increasingly hot topic, Keith Drew looks at the effects of Iceland’s unprecedented tourist boom and where the country can go from here.
Scanning my headlamp across the ceiling of Víðgelmir cave, it was easy to pick out the jagged shapes of rust-coloured stalactites hanging in the half-light and the intricate swirls carved into the rock face by ancient rivers of lava. And just for a moment, as my guide disappeared into the darkness ahead of me, I had the blissful feeling that I was all alone. In Iceland these days, that’s a very rare feeling indeed.
The rise in visitor numbers to this volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic is staggering.
In 2010, when Iceland was only just beginning to recover from its crippling financial crisis, Eyjafjallajökull (that volcano with the unpronounceable name) erupted. The eruption sent an ash cloud across Europe, which grounded flights as far afield as the Med. Suddenly, Iceland was on everybody’s radar.
I had the blissful feeling that I was all alone. In Iceland these days, that’s a very rare feeling indeed.
That year, just under 490,000 tourists arrived to bathe in Iceland’s hot springs, hike on its glaciers and marvel at its dramatic scenery. In 2017, the figure had risen to 2.3 million.
Surely, worried locals wonder, something’s got to give?
In Reykjavík, it’s the housing market. Almost all visitors to Iceland spend at least one night in the capital, and with hotel rooms in short supply, apartments that were once let to locals are now filled with foreign visitors.
“Our city is livelier and more diverse because of tourism,” says Sveinn Hólmar Guðmundsson, a local resident, “but rental prices have gone through the roof.” Like a lot of Icelanders, he can see both sides of the country’s coin. Tourism is responsible for half of all the jobs created in the country since 2010 (including Guðmundsson’s) and has boosted wages to the point where Icelanders now only lag behind the Swiss in enjoying the highest salaries in Europe. But that can be cold comfort if it’s difficult to find a place to live in your home town.
Outside the capital, there are bigger concerns. Can Iceland handle all these visitors? What impact are they having on such an ecologically sensitive country?
Nature is the reason travellers come to Iceland. If we lose that, we lose everything
On the South Coast, where glacial rivers run down from the mountains onto black-sand beaches, you can see tyre tracks etched into the delicate gravel plains where tourists have (illegally) driven their cars off-road. In Þingvellir National Park, where a great rift marks the dramatic meeting point between the North American and Eurasian plates, a park ranger tells me about the time a group of campers ripped up large chunks of moss so they could insulate their tents, leaving behind scars on the landscape that will take years to recover.
“Nature is the reason travellers come to Iceland,” says Sif Gustavsson, former Director of Visit Iceland USA. “If we lose that, we lose everything.” In Gustavsson’s current role as CEO of Iceland Cool, she works on communication campaigns that try and inspire a sense of responsibility in travellers for safeguarding the country’s welfare.
Marketing mantras do their bit, but investment is what’s really needed. The Tourist Site Protection Fund already uses money raised through tourist taxes to help conserve Iceland’s natural heritage, but Gustavsson feels more can be done. “Entry to all of our national parks is free,” she says, “which is unheard of elsewhere. All funds generated from entry fees could go towards protecting Iceland’s fragile environment.”
It’s a tricky balance, though. In a country that’s already notoriously expensive to visit, any extra expense will take a lot of justifying – when the government recently mooted doubling the VAT on tourism, it was quickly quashed for fears the additional costs would turn visitors away.
How to keep the crowds without it feeling overcrowded is Iceland’s 64,000 Kronor question
It’s hard to think of anything that could put people off coming to Iceland. Its rugged beauty and otherworldy landscapes are certainly not lost on the crowds that visit Geysir, Gullfoss and Þingvellir, the trio of sights that make up the popular Golden Circle. In summer, the car parks for these sights are full to bursting and a camera-toting mass jostle for the best view of Strokkur as it erupts in a fountain of steaming water.
How to keep the crowds without it feeling overcrowded is Iceland’s 64,000 Kronor question. “In recent years, we’ve been focusing on encouraging tourists to travel during the off-season,” says Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, Head of Marketing at Promote Iceland, “and we’ve seen a massive shift in perceptions towards Iceland as a winter destination.”
I can certainly vouch for this, having previously shivered at the prospect of going to Iceland any time outside of summer but ending up visiting at the end of October. My reward was quieter sights, cheaper accommodation and, on a memorable boat trip out into Faxafói Bay with Elding, the spellbinding sight of the Northern Lights shimmering across the night sky.
Spreading visitors throughout the year is one way of sustaining numbers; spreading them throughout the country is another. “For tourists, Iceland is still mostly undiscovered,” says Guðmundsdóttir, whose other priority is getting people to venture beyond Reykjavik and the popular south west.
Visit Reykjavik, visit the Blue Lagoon and the other big sights – they’re popular for a reason – but make sure you also see the far corners of this beautiful island
West Iceland, just a couple of hours from the capital but still relatively off the beaten track, is a case in point. It’s here that you’ll find the lava cave at Víðgelmir. Also here is Langjökull, the setting for a quite incredible tour that takes you 500m inside a glacier, through ice tunnels and into the middle of a crevasse.
On my last morning in Iceland, relaxing in the milky blue pools of the famous Blue Lagoon, it was clear that for Iceland to continue to prosper then tourists need to embrace both sides of the coin as well.
Visit Reykjavik, visit the Blue Lagoon and the other big sights – they’re popular for a reason – but make sure you also see the far corners of this beautiful island.
Come in the summer but also come in the winter.
And when you do come to Iceland know that, if the government get it right, then the money you spend will be going towards preserving the country’s incredible environment for future generations to enjoy.
Keith Drew stayed at Vaktahouse, a delightfully refurbished cottage in central Reykjavík that used to belong to the town’s Watchman, and at Hotel Húsafell, a stylish lodge on the edge of Langjökull that is Iceland’s first fully sustainable hotel.
Header image: b-hide the scene/Shutterstock.
A former Rough Guides Managing Editor, Keith Drew has written or updated over a dozen Rough Guides, including Costa Rica, Japan and Morocco. As well as writing for The Telegraph, The Guardian and BRITAIN Magazine, among others, he also runs family-travel website Lijoma.com. Follow him @keithdrewtravel on Twitter and @BigTrips4LittleTravellers on Instagram.