Iceland & Tourism | Where the Wild Things Were

Iceland is beautiful, gorgeous, truly stunning…

Travel Dates | May 22, 2017 to May 26, 2017

And every turn through the impressive landscape furthered my appreciation for the awe-inspiring nature. Yet once that magical newness wore off, I started to question the increasing level of tourism’s potentially negative effect on the environment. How could a country of 330,000 people(1) handle over 1.8 million-plus tourists a year? Can their immaculate landscape be preserved with such a high influx of outsiders?

The short answer is no, well, not yet. I’m just not convinced they're prepared to take on such a large amount of change.

Research from the Icelandic Tourist Board |  Tourism in Iceland in Figures

Research from the Icelandic Tourist Board | Tourism in Iceland in Figures

Because truth be told, Iceland is struggling to even predict the amount of traffic they will have per year. The country began meticulously documenting travelers in 1949. But it wasn’t until 2003 did the number of tourist per year roughly equal the island’s population.(2) Between 2015 and 2016 the tourism rate increased by 40%,(3) yet the Icelandic Tourist Board released a report detailing the number of tourists for the first 5 months of 2017, and the numbers are 35% higher than predicted.(4)

For some perspective, let’s think about France and tourism. The country welcomed 84 million visitors in 2016, holding the title of the top traveled country in the world. They have a little less than 65 million people, so for every French native there are 1.3 tourists.(5) Yet with the same comparison, that means for every Icelander there are 5.3 tourists, or about 30,000 foreigners per day.(6) Talk about being overwhelmed.

What is Iceland to Do?

The country’s saving grace after the 2008 economic crash was tourism. And the industry is projected to grow. The RÚV, Iceland’s national public service broadcasting company,(7) released a report showing that in 2016 the total economic growth was 6.1%. Yet without the tourism industry the growth would be around 1.2%.(8)

But that huge increase isn’t good for all. There have been reports where even Icelanders are getting wary of paying over 6.50 USD for a simple cup of coffee; we’re talking drip, people.

And it’s kind of strange to me, this Icelandic Paradox. In 1995 the Icelandic Tourist Board* began allocating government funds of roughly 700 million ISK, that’s about 70 million USD, on grants and projects in over 300 locations around Iceland.(9) Yet they’ve enacted little change.

In the past 5 years there have been rumblings to enact these protective measures. These include a tourist tax upon entry, entry fees to heavily trafficked places, seasonal openings, and changing accommodation laws. Of those Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park is the only place to have instated a parking fee, but even that’s free after 8pm.(10)

Perhaps the only other action is the so-called Airbnb Law that came into place in January of 2016. This law came about because there was a 124% increase in Airbnb rentals between 2015 and 2016. According to the law, a person can rent their property for up to 90 days a year without an operation license. Yet the income from their property cannot exceed 1 million ISK, or 10,000 USD. So a person cannot price their Airbnb more than about 110 USD per night within those 90 days.(11) 

*Note that the Icelandic Tourist Board does not work with the Environment Agency of Iceland. The latter has little to no environmental plan regarding conservationism.

How Does Iceland Feel About It?

It’s funny to me to see almost an exact 50/50 split on protecting the environment and continuing to exploit it. Some people I spoke with were very happy to share their country. But for transparency’s sake, I was a tourist talking to individuals working in a tourist industry, so take that as you will.

Adversely there are Icelandic environmental groups like Saving Iceland, previously known as Killing Iceland, that are “working to defend the Icelandic Wilderness…from heavy industry,”(12) some of that heavy industry being accommodating tourists. But if the former name wasn’t enough of a sign, I wasn’t sure if this group was alarmist, or if they had valid arguments.


As a Tourist What Should I Do?

You should absolutely still visit, and I would recommend a trip to anyone who can afford the insane prices. Yet be respectful.

I saw hot springs that bubbled up Coke bottles, and geysers spewing back people’s wish coins, and the worst was coming across used toilet paper in changing rooms. It seems simple, but research how to leave as little of a footprint as possible and enjoy your trip. Also, there are boxes to give donations for site maintenance, if you have a few dollars to spare, throw your lucky coins at some good instead of their waters.**

In short, there are too many environmental issues for even Iceland to handle at the moment. So while they figure out a way to preserve their nature, visit Iceland with the upmost respect for these magnificent places. 

**If you’re dying to make a wish somewhere, go to Peningagjá, the Money Rift, in Þingvellir National Park.

Gallery | Where the Wild Things Were

The Ring Around