Iceland has become such a popular tourist destination in recent years, a number of tensions are beginning to appear. The exponential rise in visitor numbers is in danger of threatening the very beauty people travel to Iceland to enjoy.
Iceland’s economy all but collapsed following the financial crisis of 2008, and the government looked to attracting more visitors as a way of rebuilding the country. Tourism as an industry had already enjoyed steady growth since 1990, and at the end of this decade the total number of tourists exceeded the number of residents in Iceland for the first time. In 2005, the country received 1.26 million visitors, and since 2010 there has been unprecedented year on year growth in the tourism industry. As Professor Edward Huijbens of the Iceland Tourism Research Centre says: “The graph of tourist numbers is currently almost vertical”. In 2016, Iceland’s tourist numbers rose to 1.77 million – and another record year is expected in 2017, possibly reaching 2.3 million visitors. The greatest number of visitors currently come from the USA and the UK, but now includes growing numbers from Asia – countries like Japan, China and India. While major industries like fishing and aluminium smelting have experienced a pattern of decline in recent times, tourism has gone from strength to strength – generating $3.4 billion for the annual economy while providing one in every three jobs for Icelanders.
So why has tourism taken off so dramatically? Iceland has always offered the lure of ‘pure nature’ for its visitors – awe and wonder experiences in the land of ice and fire. But recent turmoil in Europe where a number of countries have become regular targets for terrorist attacks, has boosted Iceland’s popularity as a perceived ‘safe’ location to visit. According to the Global Peace Index, Iceland is currently the safest country to visit in the world. Media exposure through Iceland being used as a film set for numerous cinema successes such as ‘Noah’ and ‘The Secret Life of Water Mitty’, along with the mega-successful TV blockbuster ‘Game of Thrones’ has raised the profile of the country, as did Iceland’s success in the recent European football championship, when much to everyone’s surprise they reached the quarter finals, beating England along the way. Growing numbers of cruise ships have recently added Iceland to their itineraries – 155 different floating palaces planning to visit in 2017 alone. But the main factor helping to grow the industry has probably been the growth in availability of cheap flights, particularly from the UK and the USA – where free stop-overs have been offered as part of many European flights. New airlines are adding Iceland to their schedules all the time, notably Iceland’s own cut-price carrier Wow! which began business in 2012.
So what is the problem with this economic success story? Has tourism not proved to be the saviour of the country following the 2008 crash? The fact is that the recent ‘tourist bomb’ has placed an impossible burden on this small island, and some would say that Iceland is beginning to fall out of love with tourism – as a number of social and environmental consequences become apparent. If growth in tourism in Iceland is to be sustainable in the future, it will need to be strategically planned and carefully managed.
Tourists place demands on infrastructure, and provision of new facilities has not been able to keep pace with the rapid growth in numbers. The Icelandic Government is currently in middle of a nine year tourism strategy that runs until 2020 with a focus on improving infrastructure while also protecting and maintaining tourist sites. However, it is struggling to deal with the enormous growth in visitor numbers that has taken place since 2010 when Eyjafjallajokull erupted and put Iceland on the tourist map. Two thirds of Iceland’s population live in the south west of the country – where more than 90% of tourists spend most of their time – and popular ‘honey pot’ locations in this area (especially on the classic ‘Golden Circle’ route) have become saturated with sightseeers, with some now barely able to cope.
New developments are emerging in an effort to keep pace with the growing mass of visitors. For example, the excellent new ‘Lava Centre’ at Hvolsvollur is providing a much-needed new information and education hub for tourists in south Iceland. There is also a new interpretation centre currently under construction at Thingvellir. On a smaller scale, new toilets have been built at Gulfoss – along with new steps and pathways to improve access between the main viewing platforms. Rather worrying however, is the scale of the proposed new ‘tourist village’ at Geysir which is planned in 4 – 5 years time to provide 76 Hectares of summer house accommodation, a swimming pool, tourist services, and yet another new luxury hotel.
One interesting case study of a site facing tourist pressures is Seljalandfoss, the tall and beautiful waterfall it is possible to walk behind, found right next to R1 ring road – and one of most popular sites in South Iceland. The local landowners that form the government of the local municipality where Seljalandfoss is sited have recently taken the decision to introduce parking charges at the waterfall for the first time. It will now cost K700 (around £5) to park a car here, and K3000 (£22) for a coach. This income will assist with the upkeep of the car park, along with maintaining the many walking paths in the area that connect nearby waterfalls, as well as providing funding for the provision of other services such as toilets.
Iceland’s existing road system is facing added pressures from growing numbers of car rental vehicles and tourist buses, while the cultural identity of Reykjavik and other settlements is being threatened as local services are overwhelmed by tourist-based shops. Thirty new restaurants have opened in central Reykjavik this year, and new hotels are springing up all the time to provide beds to meet the growing demand. There is already talk amongst residents of the ‘Disneyfication’ of the world’s most northerly capital city. Property prices in Reykjavik are extending beyond the reach of many local people, and the government has had to intervene to limit the availability of Air BnB spaces which have helped to drive prices upwards. However, there may be some clear social benefits for the local population, as the Keflavik airport undergoes massive expansion, and a train link has been proposed to connect it to Reykjavik city centre.
It is certainly the case that tourist-related ‘incidents’ are on the increase – some causing justifiable outrage amongst the local population. Are these an inevitable social consequence of tourist growth that must be accepted hand in hand with any associated benefits? Stealing road signs for souvenirs has been a long-term problem in Iceland, but has reached epidemic proportions in recent years. In the Harpa, Reykjavik’s concert hall and cultural centre, staff have been instructed to police the public spaces of the building to rid it of tourists using it as a base for picnics or even sleeping. A recent wild fire outbreak in the lava field of Snaefellsnes in west Iceland was attributed to a discarded cigarette butt, and areas of blanket moss at Nesjavellaleio have been destroyed when giant messages such as ‘send nudes’ were torn out of the vegetation, requiring decades to recover. Thoughtless tourists have been caught defacating in farm driveways and by the side of busy roads, while in east Iceland a group of tourists stole a lamb from a field to be cooked on their camp fire barbecue.
The ecological consequences of tourism growth are easy to understand. Footfall pressures at honey pot sites threaten the very fabric of the nature that attracts visitors in the first place – parts of Iceland are literally being loved to death. The central highlands of the country support an extremely low population density, and could be considered to be only untouched area left in Europe – but even this wilderness is under threat as new locations are sought out by adventurous visitors.
Geographers could approach studies of Iceland’s tourism dilemma by considering where the country currently sits within the framework of Doxey’s Irritation Index or ‘Irridex’, created in 1975. This measure is based on the understanding of local residents’ change in attitude towards tourists and tourism developments over time. It consists of different phases of social, economic and environmental impacts on a place, and how these can lead to irritation in the local community.
During the first ‘euphoria’ stage, the number of tourists is small and the local community welcomes tourism. In the next phase of ‘apathy’, the number of tourists increases, and the relationship between tourists and residents becomes formalised as contact with tourists begins to be seen as a source of income and investment. Annoyance or ‘irritation’ is the next phase when residents become concerned about tourism due to significant growth of arrivals and increased external investment in infrastructure. The final phase is titled ‘antagonism’, and is where irritations are expressed verbally and physically, while tourists are seen as the cause of the problem.
Interestingly, Doxey’s Index can be overlaid with the classic old favourite of the Butler Model (1980) to determine community responses at specific destination changes –
Sources: Doxey (1975); Butler (1980).
The many social and environmental tensions created by growth in tourism seem to already be leading to some resistance of locals to tourists (following increasing incidents of inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour), resistance of tourists to other tourists (as identified by Paul Fontaine – news editor of the Reykjavik Grapevine – who has stated: “Its got to the point where even the tourists are complaining about too many tourists”. In addition, there is some resistance from local residents to their government for selling out for the growth in income that has been generated.
Last summer a survey of 900 residents asked how Icelanders viewed foreign tourists visiting their country – and just 67.7% expressed some kind of positive response as compared to 80% the previous year.
So, where should we place Iceland within this framework today? Perhaps the first phase began in the 1990s, and shifted on to phase two with the rapid growth in the industry from around 2010. Has Iceland now reached phase three with all of the recent issues outlined earlier? How long will it be before phase four becomes apparent – or is the country already there?
So, what of the future? The United Nations has adopted 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, and as the tourist genie cannot be forced back into the bottle, what management policies are required to promote sustainable growth in this key component of Iceland’s economy? A ‘tourist cap’ – a quota restriction on visitor numbers at selected locations – is one solution that could be easily enforced, although the idea of ‘turnstile entry’ does not fit well with the natural attractions of Iceland’s wild landscape. A ‘Nature Pass’ costing $14 per person to allow access to key sites was rejected by Parliament in 2015, but may well be considered again in the future. Some form of ‘tourist tax’ has been adopted in other countries as a way of raising revenue to pay for new infrastructure, and such a charge could easily be added to visitors’ air fares.
A more structured marketing strategy could help to dilute some tourist-related problems by improving advertising of lesser known regions in the country. Tour companies are now beginning to develop itineraries based in the east of the country, including direct flights from European airports. More incoming flights are also becoming available to Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest settlement on the north coast – and this is helping to reduce pressure on the main international airport at Keflavik (which is undergoing an extensive expansion programme at present).
One interesting recent development has been the creation of the ‘Icelandic Pledge’ by InspiredbyIceland.com, an agreement tourists can sign to make a number of commitments (see below) to help them travel safely and act responsibly towards the delicate natural environment of the country. Iceland is the first country to introduce such an initiative aimed at affecting a positive behaviour change, and developing a more informed tourist community.
Tourism is currently booming, but is it a bubble due to burst in the near future? It is possible that the whole character of Icelandic tourism will continue to evolve. Once a wilderness area for only the more adventurous traveller, it has more recently shifted to the mass tourism of bucket list tickers, wanting a quick look at a volcano, a glacier, or a whale before moving on to the next location. The future may see further change towards more exclusive ecotourism or academic study tours as the strong Icelandic Krona makes trips to the country very expensive, threatening the stability of the industry. There is a danger that if present trends continue, there will be a repeat of the patterns of the herring fishing industry – which boomed in the 1960s to become responsible for half of the country’s export income, before over-exploitation lead to an inevitable rapid decline. One thing is sure, and that is if the stream of visitors to Iceland does continue to grow, there will be need to be some thoughtful choices made to shape the future direction of growth of this wonderful place.