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.
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.
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?