Too many tourists in Iceland?

Iceland has a population of about 320,000. It is thought that around 600,000 tourists visited Iceland in 2011. In 1980 around 65,000 tourists visited. The difference in these figures scares me.

A good Icelandic crowd

Recently, both Lonely Planet and National Geographic have voted Iceland as a top destination to visit in 2012.  The Icelandic tourist sites that I read all seem to think this is a great thing. The fact that Iceland has become such a popular destination so quickly is indeed something that they should be proud of, but what the tourists all love about it is the unspoiled remoteness and the fact that there aren’t a lot of people around.

I realise that I am of course one of the people helping to spoil Iceland by visiting it and that is a dilemma faced by everyone that loves to travel.  Selfishly, I really hope that Reykjavík never becomes a destination for stag and hen weekends, and that we never see big theme parks or any of the other tacky attractions that make money but cheapen an area.  I worry that Iceland will become a place like Alice Springs, once known for its isolation and now overrun with tourists, a place in the middle of nowhere that has lost what made it appealing.

I also hope that Iceland doesn’t become “just like everywhere else”. There has been talk of putting in a railway between the international airport and ReykjavÍk (see Reykavík Grapevine article here). At the moment, when you arrive at the airport, you take a nice slow bus journey into the capital. There isn’t a timetable as such, it just runs by “common sense” and is there waiting whenever flights arrive. I actually enjoy the fact that the journey is a bit slow and takes you through an undeveloped area. It puts you into the right mindset for exploring Iceland, where things are done a bit differently to the rest of Europe and there is generally a slower more relaxed pace. I really hate the thought of arriving and getting straight onto some kind of express train that stops at the Blue Lagoon and then at some big rail station in the middle of Reykjavík, just like all the other big ugly rail stations in Europe.

My "local" station Paddington - minus the drunks, pickpockets, litter...

There is a story in today’s Iceland Review about the planned demolition of NASA, a very popular venue for music and other events. This is a historic building in the heart of Reykjavík, to be replaced by another hotel. Surely many of these hotels are half empty most of the year, as another issue is that most tourists want to visit during the summer months, creating a big peak of visitors between June-August. This is unnecessary as Iceland has so much to offer at all times of year. I see that the Airwaves festival has put its timing back a few weeks in 2012, in the hope of spreading the tourist season out and attracting people who wouldn’t be there normally in November.

How many tourists should Iceland become dependent on attracting?  The recent financial crisis has meant that there are not a lot of new businesses starting up, but tourism has remained strong and you can see how Icelanders would feel this is a good way to bring money into the country. Unfortunately, with the decline of fishing and other traditional means of income, tourism jobs are a necessity. The other options are to either return to a more self-sufficient way of life that was the only way of life until a short time ago, make an industry out of something like the natural geothermal energy, or build more of an alliance with eastern or western neighbours. China is certainly interested in investing in Iceland but at what price?

I wonder if a quota on tourist numbers would be realistic and enforceable. It just seems like the current numbers must be about all that Iceland can stand without adding in more infrastructure. Perhaps luckily, there are some factors that put people off visiting Iceland, such as the prices, weather and lack of daylight in winter. Could this be enough to keep the numbers down without a quota?

How do you feel about Iceland’s growing tourist numbers? Is it generally a good thing for Iceland or not? Is a quota system necessary? What can tourists give back to Iceland besides money?


30 thoughts on “Too many tourists in Iceland?

  1. Growing numbers of tourists are a necessary evil because a nation’s economy can only grow so much using their own resources. The variable is how do you plan on attracting those dollars? You don’t want to turn the place in to Disney World, but you don’t want to shun people either.

    • I know, it’s a tough call. What I like about Iceland is how uncommercial it is. I can’t help but think that especially on the main road around the big tourist attractions there must be SO much opportunity to make money because nothing else is there, and people would stop and buy ANYTHING! Yet then you would lose all the lovely emptiness. I’m impressed at how unspoilt it still is.

  2. I think the problem that needs to be solved is getting more tourists out of the Reykjavík area and into the other areas of Iceland which are even more astounding. It is a daunting experience for even an experienced traveler to get around in the countryside, although it is now a lot better than when I first went in 2000. Still, there are real limitations on the number of accommodations in the Westfjords and the North and East (which might be a good thing!)

    I LOVE Reykjavík, but the answer is not in tearing down established cultural destinations and replacing them with dreary modern hotels. I spent a wonderful night in the old Sirkus in 2006 before that iconic place was torn down and replaced with- nothing. Whole areas around the harbour have been ravaged with dreadful hi-rises (mostly empty.)

    Now that Airwaves has reached a certain level of success, the powers that be want to change it to enhance profits, not realizing that its real appeal lies not in ultramodern classical concert halls, but in funky-but-friendly venues that reflect the country’s heritage. Moving Airwaves to November is just asking for trouble – the weather in mid-October is chancy enough, but has the potential to be glorious, more so than November.

    • It amazes me that most tourists only see Reykjavik/Blue Lagoon/Gold Circle. But you’re right, it is still pretty hard work to do anything else. A lot of people don’t want to drive themselves around and are used to having everything laid on for them and not having to think about anything. The lack of big hotels could also scare some of the more spoiled travellers away (fine with me). Escorted holidays in Iceland are pretty expensive too.

      I know, what’s up with all those tall apartment blocks around the harbour?? And I’m not a fan of Harpa either, although maybe I will give it a chance and at least go in it next year.

      Completely agree about Airwaves, the only reason I’m even considering going to it is because it’s not all huge venues or outside or everything else I hate about every other music festival! November may indeed put some people off.

      • Again, I think you need to think a bit more about what it is like to live in Reykjavík. Not everything is about you. You’re not a fan of Harpa? Why not? But frankly, who cares? It wasn’t built for tourists, it was built to fulfill the needs of Icelanders. Finally we have a real international-standard classical concert venue! Gigs in pubs are great, but sometimes a pub simply isn’t going to work. Harpa is a great thing for the musicians and music fans of Iceland! So many events take place in Harpa, it’s very quickly become a real cultural hub for the city. Plus you may not be used to it, but it’s clearly an iconic building, one with real architectural value instead of the concrete blocks that are so common in Iceland. It’s going to become as much a symbol of Reykjavík as Hallgrímskirkja.

      • My parents live in a town that is completely relies on tourism. Their town produces absolutely nothing tangible. The town has about 28,000 permanent residents, but that number gets inflated to over 100,000 during the summer months. To keep it from turning into a tourist trap with t-shirts shops and casinos, the town put a few laws into place about 30 years ago. Every business has to have a row of trees planted in between the building and the road, all signs are in Earthtones, motorcycles must have mufflers (and are not allowed in any residential area), no neon signs, and no outdoor lights. Traffic still sucks, but it doesn’t look like Disney invaded. Also, “chain” businesses have a very hard time getting a business permit. Out of the 200+ restaurants, only about a dozen are chains. Tasteful tourism can be achieved, but it requires more than just wishful thinking.

      • That’s inspiring. It’s getting it all right at the planning stage rather than being greedy, isn’t it? It’s not tourists that people object to, but all the rubbish/ugliness that is usually created especially FOR tourists for some reason.

  3. There is plenty of room if the tourists don’t hang around the same place at the same time. I got tired of cities as a boy. As a man I recognize their cultural value (and shopping opportunities) but my real love is being out in the rural and wilderness (much as they are) areas. I relax better there.

    • Yes, I’d love to go and do the half marathon in August but that’s about as bad as it gets for tourists! I’ve talked myself out of it a couple of times now. The beauty of Iceland as you know is that even in the city you are only a few minutes away from being in the middle of nowhere. A good compromise!

  4. I agree with you 100 procent.
    I blogged about it when i was visitig my birth country last time i was there, that i thought we were becoming very turistic, i mean the book shops are all filled with souveners and we have these small stores popping up all over the place selling Icelandic this, Icelandic that.. It´s bad enough that Blue Lagoon charges turists Extra for getting in the Lagoon.. This development is not good as i see it, and we are unfortunately becoming more and more American.
    Plus, i think actually that it is a good thing the turists all stick to Reykjavik, then our beautiful nature out in the country site wont, hopefully be poluted by all this. And i dont get it either, why they are tearing down old, beautiful historic houses and building all these monsters.. It does´nt fit in the unspoild nature Iceland has to offer.. But then again, it´s all about the money.. Everybody over there is thinking NOW because of the crisis.. Not what will happen down the road. It will not have a good ending, so enjoy it while it is unspoild like it is now.

    • Yes, I’ve always thought that I would hate to live somewhere where a lot of tourists visit, as you end up with a lot of “tourist shops” instead of shops that YOU want to buy things in. It’s unfortunate that Iceland has to import so many goods, as it does make you open to outside influences, American or otherwise.

      Good point – at least by staying in Reykjavik it’s saving the rest of the country from becoming a Disney resort! It’s a shame to lose the older buildings as once they’re gone, they’re gone. England goes too much the other way sometimes in going to too much trouble to keep old buildings. But, you get a real sense of history by having them.

      I do think (hope) that there is a limit to how many people will come to Iceland, many think it’s too cold or expensive. Maybe my blog should be more focussed on trying to keep people OUT rather than saying how good it is all the time…:)

  5. It’s difficult, I agree. But I think that a lot of people’s fears are unfounded – the fact is that to get to fly a plane with 150 tourists to Iceland you need a huge amount of oil, and oil is becoming more and more expensive, and we’re now entering into a global recession, so there are fewer people who will be able to go on holiday to Iceland in the future: they will go camping in Scotland or Cornwall instead, like they probably did in 1980. I mean, who could afford a stag do in Reykjavik? Its almost £5 a pint!

    The main problem, as I see it, is that a lot of people that turn up in Iceland nowadays are not particularly adventurous or interesting people, they are just transactional tourists, they shop on the internet, go for the lowest price, use discount codes and cashback offers, expect everyone to speak english, and just have a boring consumerist attitude to their trip and don’t really spend any significant amount of money while they are there. Over the past few years, this type of tourist has started to massively annoy me. even though, If I am honest, I probably was one,once.

    • It would be quite refreshing if there weren’t so many people determined to be flying around the world at all costs. The problem is most people live beyond their means and just put everything on credit cards. I take your point though, and it’s interesting that Icelandair at least hasn’t changed/increased their London timetable for years. Having said that I think Iceland sees the US as much more of a source of income/endless tourists.

      I completely agree with you about “that kind” of tourist. My pet peeve is people who tick off the tourist attractions and then think they’ve “done” a place. On another note, I often wonder how the people of Akureyri feel about the cruise ship tourists.

      On a positive note, those people probably aren’t ever repeat visitors to Iceland! (or anywhere-they’re too busy thinking they’re interesting by going somewhere different and far-flung every year).

      • Hi, You asked about the cruise ship customers – well, that’s a difficult one. From talking to people in the Westfjords outside of the travel industry, the view is that they don’t spend any money, particularly since ca 2008. The ship calls by for like less than a day and all the meals etc are prepared on the boat. So, they just sell a few coffees, a few 500kr entrance tickets to the town museum, and thats about it. There is one tourist shop in the town – a branch of the Viking shop, that literally just opens when the cruise ship drops by. A few bus drivers make ok money taking some people on tours to the nearby villages. So, in exchange for this, the town gets 800 mainstream tourists walking around aimlessly. And, the view that people have is tht this kind of damages the exerience for the people who have actually made the effort to make the 6-8 hour drive up from Reykjavik and are genuinely adventurous.

        I think as well, re-reading my last comment…. I’m not an Icelander and never will be. It’s really up to the Icelanders to decide their own fate in these matters. I guess though that my opinions are not too different to the Icelanders that I know well. I think it would be good if the the philosophy of buying local took off amongst both Icelanders and tourists, but I’m resigned to the fact that I can only influence this in a very small way, but I think it can be positive.

    • The entrance fees thing does puzzle me. Here Iceland has these natural wonders that are priceless and would be shouted about and charged lots of money to see anywhere else, and yet in Iceland they are all free and would be very easy to drive past the exit to given lack of fanfare. This is what I like about Iceland, but I do wonder if they’re missing a trick by not charging SOMETHING to see things…maybe the logic is that if you charge, than you also have to provide more services there which is difficult in some locations.

      Please don’t tax us any more though. 🙂 By the way, I’ve linked to your site in my blogs now in case people want to stay in your area.

      • Hi, thanks 🙂 and sorry it took me so long to reply again. No, they HAVE to charge and charge big, that’s my view. It’s better to have a few tourists that spend a lot of money than lots of tourists who spend no money. My own personal opinion is that the focus of tourism in Iceland should be towards an upmarket, high quality experience. Of course, if you want to sit in my apartment in the westfjords drinking coffee and reading books, that’s fine as well, as long as you buy a few pints of beer in the pub and support the local shop.

        Car hire should be taxed at a flat rate, eg 1000kr per day, that money could go to help support public transport for instance.

      • I agree with your tourist numbers/spend philosophy. If it makes you feel any better I spend a lot of money in Iceland! But what about if the people who spend the most money are the oldies/cruise ship tourists who aren’t into Iceland particularly but will just buy loads of any tacky gifts they can find? Really you want it to be a few tourists who really appreciate Iceland for what it is AND spend money. I feel the same about my blog sometimes, I’d rather have 5 real Icelandophiles reading it than 1000 people who have followed because they saw me on Freshly Pressed or something.

        I think the lack of public transport must put some people off. If you don’t particularly like driving it’s a pretty onerous task to drive yourself around for a holiday.

        I’m sure the locals in your area appreciate you as an educated tourist encouraging other educated tourists.

  6. Iceland is thronged with tourists in the summer indeed. But it does seem like tourism is the number one economic input into the country, and at the minute they certainly need to hold onto that. I think mass emigration to Iceland could threaten more than large tourism, but this is another interesting piece.

    Kind of connected to this, you might be interested:

    • Do you think there could ever be a mass emigration to Iceland? I know there are more short term Eastern European workers there than there would have been previously, but do you think more people could choose to stay there permanently?

      Thanks for that link, it’s really interesting to see what could be! So much for my dreams of things staying like they are forever.

      • It’s always possible there can be mass emigration. Ireland’s population saw a 30% increase during the econonomic boom which has steadied to a 10% increase overall. It can happen, and Iceland is such a great place to go, people will naturally settle there.

        And please no! don’t advocate charging to see natural wonders (in reference to the last comment above)! Iceland’s economy benefits from the tourists using all of the shops and accommodation – in Britain they have started privatising and charging for natural sites and they make them just unbearable to visit – upkeep and maintenance charges lead to more emphasis on paths, walkways etc. and thus more detrimental effects on the natural beauty of these places. And from the point of view of someone with not much money to throw around, I have skipped seeing some amazing things in Britain just because I couldn’t afford it. I hope to god that Iceland never go down that road. There are really heavy protests in Ireland at the minute blocking any move to try to privatise natural sites here, with mixed success.

        And lastly – I don’ think it’s a bad thing for things to change – Iceland has changed a lot over the last 1000 years, with influences from Norway and Denmark changing the infrastructure and urban landscape. If it changes more I think it’ll be OK – at the core the Icelandic people have a culture and heritage that cannot be shaken and new trains and bridges wont affect that in any serious way. The country will still be beautiful and the people will still be cool, I hope!

      • Re mass emigration, I suppose there would have to be a sudden surge in available jobs. Let’s hope that’s not due to a Disneyworld being built there. 🙂

        Yes, I know what you mean about natural sites being charged for here. It does mean you need more infrastructure and can end up with a false environment of paths and chains. Honestly, I don’t think it will happen in Iceland because it would require more people to be living outside of the capital area to be able to maintain all this infrastructure that would need to happen.

        We are lucky that such unspoiled places still exist in our lifetime! I love walking in places like Iceland that don’t have footpath signs everywhere and information overload of health and safety type advice.

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  8. I understand where you’re coming from, the amount of tourists in Iceland keep increasing and if that’s good or bad is hard to say. Since I’m one of those who actually partly get my income from the tourist business I of course need them to come here. But there is a huge problem with it, there are too many that ruin the unspoiled nature because they don’t follow (or possibly don’t know) the rules of what is allowed and what is not. That is one of the reasons why we want tourists to go on tours with us or others like us who knows the land and how to get around in the “wilderness”.
    I’m not sure I agree with you on the whole train vs. bus thing to and from Keflavik. You need to remember that it’s not just tourist that come to the airport and need to get to Reykjavík. For us who live here, we want to get to the city as fast as possible and unfortunately a train would be the fastest way. At the same time I kind of like the fact that there are no trains in Iceland, so I’m a bit split in two when it comes to this subject. But for those who want to see more then it is possible to rent a car. You don’t have to take the train just because it’s there.
    But I do think there will be changes in the tourist question, especially since there is the debate about if they should charge tourists or not to see some of the visited “attractions”. I’m with out a doubt against that one! Nature should be free for everyone! It will be a huge mistake to start charging tourist to see Geysir and all the other beautiful things that makes Iceland so special and great!

      • Yeah, I thought your comment about the slow bus journey was a bit off as well. Iceland and the international airport does not exist just for tourists. We are not ‘exploring Iceland’ when we get into Keflavík, we are going home. We are probably tired after the journey and eager to get into Reykjavík as fast as possible. I’d also like to be able to get to the airport faster as well; it would be great not to have to pay for long-term parking but at the moment I would take a car every time over the bus, because it’s so slow. I think a high-speed railway would be a pretty good idea, and opposing it based solely on a tourist’s experience is quite selfish and short-sighted. WE shouldn’t have a railway because you think it would ruin YOUR experience of visiting Iceland? Say what?

        Whatever happened, it would most likely be a single line with maybe four stops or something, it would never ever be anything on the scale of the London railway network, so you don’t have to worry about Paddington Reykjavík.

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