After spending five days in Iceland with hundreds of other tourists, I have to say that I’m worried about our northern neighbor.
In 2014 Iceland had one million visitors, a number that had remained consistent for many years. Then in 2015 they had 1.2 million visitors, and in 2016, a whopping two million visitors. Tourism doubled in two years.
My trip was lovely…I visited the Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss, and Gullfoss waterfalls, got sprayed by the Geysir geyser, soaked in the Fontana Hot Springs and the Blue Lagoon, climbed on the Langjokull and Myrdalsjokull glaciers, and saw where the North American Plate is rapidly pulling away from the Eurasian Plate. I checked “see the northern lights” off of my bucket list, ate bread that was baked in the dirt of a geo-thermal hot spring and got to pet a couple of Icelandic Horses.
The Icelanders are a hearty and kind people, welcoming and warm to the myriad tourists lined up to buy boiled wool gloves, and tall tales about the elves who live in local rock piles.
They’ll happily ladle up a bowl-full of their traditional lamb stew, and tell you how they simply adjust to the long days in summer and the endless nights of winter.
They proudly tell you that almost everyone is related in some way, and that their fore-fathers kept perfect records from the very beginning of life on the island. So it was easy, for example, for one of my tour guides to research that his wife is his 35th cousin.
But the idyllic country is currently experiencing a huge explosion in tourism, in part due to two airlines who are offering vast discounts on airfare to Iceland. WOW Air and Iceland Air both offer a free return for European Countries and the US, if you fly with them to Iceland.
I took advantage of Iceland Air’s promotion, and even upgraded to their business class (Saga), which was quite reasonable. Their airport lounge alone was worth the price of the upgrade, nicer than any of the United First Class lounges I’ve been in.
To accommodate this tourism, Iceland has built restroom facilities, diners and souvenir shops at some of the remote natural wonders. Of course, as a tourist myself, these restrooms came in quite handy. But when I was at the Hvita River and falls, and asked about the new construction going in, my tour guide said they were building a “new toilet and souvenir shop for all of the tour buses.”
When I asked him if these changes worried him, he said, “I’m in the tourist industry, so it supports my livelihood…my clients need to use facilities all the time. But as an Icelander? Yeah, I’m afraid of how much and how fast things are changing. We’re losing a lot of the natural feel to these places.”
Another tour guide lamented the influx of rental cars, and the drivers who insisted they knew how to drive in icy conditions. He told me that many of the rental cars were ignoring posted signs stating that roads were closed to non-four-wheel-drive, and driving through anyway…only to get stuck, and blocking the road for everyone else.
These rental cars were also often stopping in the middle of the road to take photos, as there aren’t many places to pull over. In heavy snow, this can be disastrous. Even in great conditions, with superb visibility…it’s not the best idea to stop in an active roadway.
Once out of the capitol of Reykjavik, every third vehicle seemed to be a bus or van filled with tourists…and I was there in the off-season! There are at least two companies that I used, who send out the smaller vans to scoop up tourists from the hotels, then bring them all to a large bus depot. At the depot, you go inside and get a voucher (even if you have already paid), and then go out and find the appropriately labeled bus, then take your tour.
I have no complaints about the tours themselves (well, one mini-complaint. My glacier hike was described as easy and all but the guide agreed that it wasn’t. The guide admitted that people are hardier in Iceland, so have different standards). All of them were on time, competent, informative, comfortable and fun.
The food costs in Iceland are exorbitant. I got one guide to admit that the enormous rate was a fairly recent hike, that he thought was due to tourism, but he couldn’t confirm that. He said he could no longer afford to take his family out to dinner, that even a fast food meal for four was close to US $100. I will admit that while all of my meals there were delicious (DO try the lamb!), I was surprised every time a bill came…even after seeing the price on the menu. I had a cup of tomato basil soup…not a bowl, a CUP…that cost US $25.Yes, it was delicious, and no, it wasn’t out of line with other menu items.
Reykjavik is small compared to other capital cities, and it’s clean, colorful, thriving and fun to walk. It appears to be building and growing, just like any other major city.
But it’s what’s beyond that city core that I worry about. I’m no expert on infrastructure, but it appears to me that Iceland doesn’t have one strong enough to handle what’s happening.
The highways that I traveled were almost all narrow two-lane, with no shoulder or pull-out. And tourist drivers who make mistakes. And a LOT of tour buses. With more coming.
They have beautiful natural wonders dotted all over the island, with directional signs that are not only infrequent, but written in very long Icelandic words that you really do need to pull over to decipher.
But here’s the thing: I absolutely loved Iceland. Immediately prior to my arrival, I’d visited Switzerland, France, Germany and Holland…and those four were somewhat interchangeable in my memory. Looking at photos, I couldn’t remember which country housed the buildings I’d just shot. But once I arrived in Iceland, I KNEW I was in a different place.
Their architecture, food, friendliness, landscapes were all on a different playing field.
Many of the buildings in Reykjavik were topped with brightly colored roofs – red, orange, green, blue, purple…and because of their angles, appeared to be happily dancing in the gray sky.
The food is mostly sourced locally, because Icelanders have fine-tuned their greenhouse skills, utilizing the geothermal heat when the days are short and cold. They produce their own tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and many other vegetables. They serve very little beef, emphasizing instead, their abundant lamb offerings. The locals also eat horse, and I had to ask one guide to please stop describing it to me.
I explained to him that I understood it was normal for him, but just as I would never describe my meat-eating habits to a vegetarian, I was uncomfortable listening to the details of how they raise horses for both recreation and food.
Just about every Icelander I met was thrilled and excited to share anecdotes and history, and welcome me to their world. It almost felt like I had entered Pleasantville, as everyone was so eager to sell me on the great qualities offered on this small island. I never felt like I was a troublesome tourist, or that tourism wasn’t encouraged across the board.
So here’s where I’m going with this.
I want you to go to Iceland.
Before it changes too much to accommodate all of us going there.