Iceland & the overtourism question

Overtourism in Iceland

It has been a while that this thought was rambling through my mind: Does Iceland have a problem with overtourism? There are a lot of debates going on, about whether is does or it doesn’t. Read here why – in my opinion – it does.

Last week I received a newsletter from the German website eldey.de for German Iceland enthusiasts. It always comes with a news article collection of German news about Iceland. One of those articles was from the “Westfälische Rundschau” citing the South- & mid Europe manager of Íslandsstofa, Sigríður Rangnarsdóttir, responsible for tourism and creative industries during an interview at the International Leading Travel Trade Show – ITB Berlin. Apart from the dilenttantism of this so called “interview”, the article astonished me. Sigríður said “No” to the quesion, if Iceland has a problem with overtourism connected to its recent tourist boom. This finally gave me the inititiative to write about this issue, which has been preying on my mind for so long.

The arguments Sigríður states are somewhat short-sighted. She claims, that – even though the tourist numbers during the last six or seven years have tripled – Iceland is a big island and has a lot capacities left for even more tourists. Technically she is right: Iceland is a rather big island, even though it is not even in the top 10 of biggest islands worldwide. However, with 100.250 km² land area it is roughly two and a half times the size of Switzerland. She claims that due to this vastness, there can be no such thing as overtourism in the scale of which, for example Barcelona or Venice are suffering from. Most of Icelands territory (around 75%), however is classfied hostile, barren highlands. This means most of the tourism activities are concentrated along the shore lines and more tourism friendly areas, especially the South Coast, parts of West Iceland and of course the Reykjavík metropolitan area. Iceland has a population of approximately 350,000 inhabitants and tourist numbers of 2017 were estimated of roughly 2,5 millions. This means locals are outnumbered 7:1 by tourists, relatively even more in the rural areas outside the Reykjavík area, since only 126,000 people live outside Icelands capital. According to Sigríður Iceland has 50,000 visitors each day, which equals the combined population of the Icelandic cities Akureyri, Selfoss and Akranes being out and about every single day.

Reynisfjara Beach
Popular tourist destination on the South Coast, Reynisfjara Beach, on a very calm day

With this knowledge in mind, you now have to set Sigríður’s statement into proportion, as according to her, Iceland doesn’t have a problem with too many tourists compared to other destinations. Take the current most (in)famous European example of overtourism  – Barcelona – in comparison with Icelands population, it will visualize how much these tourist numbers are indicating exactly what she is negating: Overtourism in Iceland! Barcelona has a city population of 1,6 million inhabitants, if you count in the metro area as well it is roughly 5 million. If you apply Icelands tourists numbers on Barcelona, it would need to have to welcome almost 11 million visitors each year. In fact, however Barcelona welcomed 7,4 million visitors (numbers from 2012). In other words: Tourist plagued Barcelona would need to receive a whooping 40% more tourists in order to match Icelands out-of-proportion tourist numbers. Ask Barcelonas acting mayor Ada Colau about her opinion on such glaring tourist numbers, her predecessors of the Catalan Right actually had in mind for her city . You guess right, she and the residents would be even more outraged then they already are about status-quo.

Now, you could possibly argue 7,4 million tourists accummulated on a city terrain of a rather small, ancient city, like Barcelona (100 km²) is a whole different story than on an ample island of thousand times this size and she actually has a point on this “big island” argument. Fair enough. But you should not forget that Spain is a traditional country of tourism. As early as the 70’s Spain is accostumed to mass tourism. As Sigríður from Íslandsstofan correctly stated, Iceland is new to the tourism game (in the year 2008 only half a million visitors could afford to travel to pre-crash Iceland). Not to mention the concentration of  tourists in the new high season during winter times, which traditionally had fewer to no tourists. This is one of the multifaceted problems of the Icelandic travel industry: The whole country in general and the infrastructure in particular is not designed to host that many people at once, especially not in such a short time. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Let’s step back for a minute and define what exactly is „overtourism“. There is not one uniform definition, but the one which in my opinion describes the term the best is from Responsible Tourism Partnership: “Overtourism describes destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that there are too many visitors and that the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably. It is the opposite of Responsible Tourism which is about using tourism to make better places to live in and better places to visit. Often both visitors and guests experience the deterioration concurrently.”

Iceland as it is advertised
Iceland as it is advertised – lonely, pure and wide

In the light of this unsexy definition, one can understand why Íslandsstofa will avoid at all costs to admit that there is overtourism on a special scale in Iceland. Naturally no tourist destinations wants to, especially the involved parties which highly profit from the tourist boom. Those parties are also the stakeholders Íslandsstofan tries to serve. Of course, Sigríður needs to negate this kind of questions during the biggest travel show in Europe, since the main task of her employer Íslandsstofa is to “promote Icelands good image and reputation”. Would she admit Iceland is balancing on the brim of overtourism, this very image wouldn’t be as attractive, fresh and clean anymore, because overtourism has many negative effects on these very trademarks Íslandsstofa is trying to praise and make you associate Iceland with such feel-good-terms as “purity of life” or “clean nature”.

“Iceland – it is not for everyone. It’s not for those who go where everyone else goes”. – Slogan from Inspired by Iceland Marketing campaign

The funny thing about this statement from the marketing campaign of Inspired by Iceland is, that Iceland isn’t this exotic travel destination anymore. You can easily reach it from North America and almost all the European cities with direct flights and the very tourist numbers reflect that it isn’t the out of the common “not-for-everyone” destination. Additionally, due to the geographical conditions as I already described, there naturally form tourist hot-spots which channel those tourist masses into very few areas (South Coast, Golden Circle and some parts of the West and Reykjavík capital area) and create exactly that “Where everyone goes”-effect. This hot-spot-impact is reinforced by the statistically short time of stay of the average traveller. Since Iceland always has been and increasingly becomes incredibly more expensive, a lot of people can simply not afford to stay longer. That means tourists mainly concentrate on sites easily and fast accessible. Which boils down to a few increasingly more and more popular destinations, where it starts to show the effects of the tourism boom. The very slogan and marketing becomes a farce. It doesn’t help that the domestic airline Air Iceland Connect in the beginning of the year announced to cancel flights to its destinations in North Iceland, even though cities like Akureyri were putting high hopes in to channelling some of those tourist masses into its direction. There goes basically another of  Sigríðurs arguments, that more tourists for Iceland are desireable so more remote areas can survive thanks to the tourist flow – at least for now.

Of course, overall many arguments of the campaign have some truth to it, especially if you directly compare it to your average crowded tourist destination. But on a relative scale, Iceland has issues in all those fabulously sounding statements and the tourism boom especially fuelled by the dramatically rising number of international airlines directly flying to Iceland is excellerating these issues or are for some the trigger.

Purity of life

“Icelanders have long enjoyed one of the highest life expectancy” states the first sentence. Correctly written in the past tense. The author claims this may be due to the healthy diet. Well, the OECD tells a different story and lists Iceland as the 7th most overweight country in the world. Everywhere you go, you will find the mandatory burger & fries, huge cups of extremely sweet soda, both local and international versions and endless candy bars in every supermarket, which happen to have a flatrate during certain days a week. Why Iceland  scrapped its sugar-tax will forever remain a mystery to me. Now, you might argue that Iceland is on the top-5 list of the most happiest nations, but what mainstream media and all the tourism stakeholders like to ignore is, that at the same time Iceland is one of the countries in the world with the highest consumption of anti-depressiva, even for children. Of course, those arguments are not caused directly by the tourism boom. Nevertheless there are underlying reasons also stirring those problems, for example a lot of people are stressed and chronically overworked due to the boom and therefore rely on anti-depressiva.

Clean Nature

If you live in a remote area of Iceland, changes are this statement rings true. As I mentioned earlier the fast majority of this nation lives within the capital city region, which happens to be plagued frequently with high air pollution, especially from the ever increasing car traffic and construction sites, this is far from true. I also would like to take you on a walk through Reykjavík and it surroundings and you will see how much emphasize there is on a clean nature: trash everywhere, entangled in bushes, rolling over the roads or blowing along the beach. Even the Icelandic prime minister starting plokking – picking up trash while walking. My guess for this much trash around is that there is actually a lack of trash bins. Who can blame people for a trashed site, if the city doesn’t provide enough trash-bins or at least trashcans which are suitable for Icelandic weather conditions with its constantly blowing wind which is rather often blowing the rubbish out of the bins due to their idiotic design. Another odd thing I never came to understand is the obsession of Icelanders to leave their car engine running – all the time, not to mention to take the car for every single short distance. If you wait for your spouse to do the groceries, eat your ice cream or just casually scroll down your Instagram timeline – please, do not bother to turn off your car, everyone enjoys exhaust fumes, especially the clean Icelandic nature.

When you arrive in Keflavík airport big commercials will illustrate how green and clean Icelandic energy is thanks to its abundance of geothermal energy. But what it doesn’t reveal however, is the growing amount of nasty Aluminium factories or other polluting factories such as the infamous silicon factory United Silicon, which forced local population to keep their windows shut and their kids inside. So, that’s that about clean nature.

In the following I will list problems that I personally think are at stake for Iceland and how they are affected by the tourism boom and potential overtourism.

Infrastructure

A recent evaluation has shown that Iceland needs about EUR 3 billion in order to bring its infrastructure up to date to the impact tourism boom had on it as well as pending measurements on the infracstructure pre-boom times. This affects many parts of the society, not only the road system.

1. Medical System

One chronically understaffed and underfinanced sector of Icelandic society is the medical system. The university hospital of Reykjavík is short of approximetly 180 nurses and lacks appropriate rooms referred to the number of patients, its mid-wives were on strike and negotiations are ongoing due to crass underpayment. The situation would be already tense even without a record number of visitors flocking to Iceland, but with 50,000 extra persons being on the island, getting sick or injured puts an enormous strain on the medical sector.

2. Search & Rescue teams

What leads directly to another area which is under high pressure due to the tourism boom: The exclusevily voluntarily operating Search & Rescue team. These national heroes will be the first ones to help travellers in distress, help secure assist in accidents of all kind and even help when hotel signs become loose during one of Icelands infamous storms. I repeat: These guys work voluntarily! They have families, normal jobs and other commitments. They have to privately pay for their trainings, uniforms and expenses which come along with a rescue mission. Thanks to their efforts and dedication tourism hasn’t (yet) led the country to a social collapse – this neither fair nor is it sustainable. Their situation became even more stressful since the winter season, as I already mentioned, became dramatically more attractive to travellers for seeing the Northern Lights and as

The Northern Lights Show
The main reason why winter season became so dramatically more popular for tourists: Aurora Borealis

travelling conditions in Icelandic winter are so very different to most of the regions in the world, it happens frequently that travellers get into a miserable situation and need the search and rescue team assistance. Weather in Iceland changes incredibly fast and what started as a sunny day, will turn into a blizzard almost without warning. Small, narrow roads, icy and windy conditions and tourists driving small car rentals without experience in Icelandic conditions and voilá: the perfect scenario to reduce your Search & Rescue teams to dispair.

3. Icelandic Coast Guard

Speaking of collapses and rescue: If one of those disgustingly huge, floating evironmental nightmares called cruise ships would get into distress, the Icelandic Coast Guard would have a rather massive problem. Since Iceland doesn’t have a military, but only 3-4 coast guard ships, it would be nearly impossible to rescue such an humongous vessel and its thousands of passengers at a time. There are about 180 cruise ships coming to Iceland this year. This simply goes beyond the scope of dimension for this tiny nation.

4. General publich safety

The same might be true for the every growing number of hotels. Downtown Reykjavík is on a very fast pace becoming a hollow shadow of itself thanks to big accommodation builidings and international hotel chains with capacities of several hundred beds. It just so happened this week that there was a big fire within a municipality of Reykjavík which required almost the entire firefighter departement of Reykjavík and surroundings. They needed the whole day in order to control the fire and its toxic smoke and were even days after the fire sparked still busy preventing it from blazing up again. Luckily, this was only a storage building burning with not many people in need of rescue. Reykjavík doesn’t have a large-size pool of professional fulltime firefighters – after all such a tiny nation didn’t require it – until now. But with an 50,000 per day of individuals extra this might change instantly. Just imagine one of those huge hotels burning. I don’t even dare to think about this scenario.

5. Sewage system

Icelands sewage system is rudimentary and needs, like many parts of the public infrastructure, big investment. When speaking of the sewage system, one basically only can speak of the systematical sewage system of the capital area. Many smaller cities or farms still work with soakaways or directly pumping unfiltered waste water into the ocean, causing serious damage like at the wonderful lake Mývatn. Reykjavík only has so-called first stage sewage treatment plants. They simply filter out “coarse material, sand and fat is purified from the wastewater before it is pumped 4-5 km out into Faxaflói where the sea is responsible for breaking down the remaining material.” Just think about it – whale watching tourists are sailing in their own waste water, yummy.  Since many tourists come from countries where the sewage systems are way more sophisticated, they may not realise what kind of system they are dealing with in Iceland. Which may cause more stress on the environment and that squeaky clean “clean nature” image without them even realising or of course intending it. Since I didn’t find any further information about this, I only can speculate. However, an incident from last summer shows, how delicate and fragile the situation is, when a sewage system was leaking for several days before it got even detected spilling tons of raw waste water into the ocean and the nearby geothermal beach Nauthólsvík. This, by the way, is not the first time this happens.

6. Renting and housing market

Many jolly tourists will never realise it, but their very presence puts an enormous pressure on this tiny nations housing and renting market. While strolling down main shopping street Laugarvegur mainly all of the properties encountered have experienced an massive boom in their value. As in most of the tourism hot spots around the world, the real estate market is one of the first to respond to an increased interest by tourists. But when it comes to Iceland the dimension is once again blowing out of proportions, in many regards. Icelands housing market is traditionally tough, since building is unbelievably expensive and living space has always been tight. But the tourism boom has put it to the extreme. Both the official hotel room capacity have increased rapidly leaving less space for residencial areas, not to speak of costs per night in a hotel room going through the roof (hotel prices increase by 60%) as well as unofficial accommodation options such as AirB’n’B are putting a huge strain on the situation. Iceland has the highest AirB’n’B density in the world with more then 1,000 apartements in such a miniature society as the Icelandic one, is just insane. Many people, especially in the capital area, including myself, struggle to find affordable or at least dignified living space. An issue almost nobody is associating with this current housing and renting market situation is the growing number of people becoming as a direct result homeless. That doesn’t fit too well with the spotless image Iceland tries to create about itself and tourists like to associate with.

“Abuse the tourist for they are below us and never be honest, because we ain’t in a rush” – Máni Orrason – Money at home

7. Law Inforcement

Iceland has a total of 805 police employees. For an island this size you can imagine how effective they are in protecting the delicate Icelandic nature from reckless and illegal off-road driving, tourist from speeding in road conditions extremely dangerous, people from pitching their tents wherever they please or stopping travellers who feel entitled to ignore the “STOP” or “CLOSED” signs along the road and paths they encounter, because they have paid so much for their trip or have came such a long way to Iceland. Exactly, not very effective.

Nature is biggest looser

Part of the problem of seemingly uncontrolled growth of travel sector is the insanely growing number of flights in general and the equally increasing budget airlines flying to Iceland in particular. Keflavík International Airport is about to expand drastically, building a new runway and gates as well as scheduling an unprecedented number of arrivals and departures for summer 2018. Also, the unwillingness and apathy of the Icelandic authorities to make decision about the travel industry, which is incredible since it is now the biggest industry branch of the country, even passing the traditional most important fish industry.

adly damaged path to Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon
Badly damaged path to the beautiful canyon of Fjaðrárgljúfur which became famous thanks to a music video of Justin Bieber. Source: Umhverfisstofnun

Now, nature is not an infrastructure, but Iceland’s most valuable asset in this whole tourism affaire. It is the single-most reason of people flocking to this country and Íslandsstofan most important selling point. It simply goes beyond my understanding, why this country is jeopardizing its unique and (yet) unspoiled nature, only to exploit the most of it for some short period before it becomes too damaged in order to attract anyone to this windswept volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.

Will there be change?

Not only public figures like author Alda Sigmundsdóttir in her book “Little book of tourists in Iceland” articulating the opinion, that Iceland has a problem regarding tourists and the way tourism is handled. Also Icelandic photograpger Rafn Sig is concerned. On his Patreon account he states: “Iceland is very sensitive due to short summers and long winters, so it takes the vegetation long time to heal. Sorry to say that we have long passed the tourists tolerance limits. We are only 350.000 people living here but we are getting over 2.400.000 tourists this year 2017. That is eight times more than population of Iceland.”

Soon Reykjavík will hold City Council elections. Let’s see if there will be any change when it comes to how the city will handle its hordes of visitors. This, I believe, will set an example on the overall Icelandic handling in tourism boom. Even though there traditionally is a big difference in voters behaviour between the capital and the countryside, I truly believe that measurements implemented by Reykjavík will set examples for other cities and districts and will give vision on how to handle tourism in a responsible and effective way for common property, not only for the profit of tiny elite. But as it has been proven by history many times, Iceland is a country of extremes, not only when it comes to its weather. I understand why many Icelanders do not want to look at the emerging problems tourism is bringing to their country, since it is also the reason why Iceland could recover so promptly from the financial crash in 2008.

But other countries and travel destinations have already been through the harsh truth of overtourism, where Iceland seems only to be standing at the beginning of it. I truly believe Iceland can still turn it around and make a difference. This heartplace of mine is in self-destruction mode and I’d like to believe it can still change course and show the world not only it is possible to implement the worlds first bitcoin ATM, but also how to handle tourism in a innovative and unique way for the good of everyone involved: Nature, visitors and locals to make Iceland a better place to live in and better place to visit.

2 comments

  1. Thank you for this article, it sounds like you’d be speaking out of my heart. My first trip was in 1969, my 10th in 2009, and at this latest one I felt that people, especially in the remote areas, get very nervous towards tourists. Against my former intention to take another trip, today I think the 2009 travel was my last one. There are still other countries to discover.

    Like

    1. Hi Gerd, thank you for your comment. It is sad to hear, you might not return, because of this issue, but I totally understand you. How did it show that the people got nervous towards tourists in your case?

      Like

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