A few weeks ago, I returned from an incredible journey around Iceland’s Ring Road, an 800+ mile circumnavigation of one of the world’s smallest countries by population. And because of that, much of my trip consisted of driving through towns so small–if you blink, you’d miss ’em. On the order of hundreds of inhabitants, these sleepy seaside fishing villages have been exactly that for centuries. But something strange began happening in the past decade–a remarkable uptick in tourism.
Slowly but surely, these towns, cities, and ultimately the capital are exploding with visitors. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to speak with an Icelander about the impact on rural tourism, however, I definitely got a flavor for Reykjavik’s challenges. While nature is what draws foreigners to Iceland, it’s this city’s infrastructure, culture, and economy bearing a great burden, adjusting to the push and pull of tourism. Citizens are calling for action and city officials are facing decisions on how best to manage an urban fabric for residents and tourists.
The World’s Northermost Capital
The surrounding Reykjavik metro is where two-thirds of the country’s approximately 350,000 Icelanders call home. Planned as a car-centric city, there are sprawling suburbs and highways connecting much of the region. The historic core sits to the extreme west of the peninsula, near the harbor and waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a delightfully quaint town complete with a bounty of street art, a handful of promenades, and a booming food scene.
After Reykjavik, the second largest town Akureyri harbors around 18,000 people and sits on Iceland’s north coast. Making up the rest of the country’s population are hundreds of very tiny towns around the Ring Road useful for refueling, accommodation, and a mild sense of civilization. Trust me, after more than a week on the Ring Road, arriving in Reykjavik felt like crossing the George Washington bridge into New York City.
This great influx of tourists (a problem I’m admittedly helping advance) is placing a noticeable strain on the country’s relatively simple infrastructure. As for the countryside, tourists are causing damage to lava fields and a variety of green spaces, taking their car’s 4×4 capabilities a little too seriously. Perhaps people have little familiarity with the ‘leave no trace’ mentality, therefore public deification and idiotic deaths (falls and drownings) make their rounds in national headlines. However, for many small cities with evaporating job opportunities, the influx of tourism is welcomed. I certainly stopped in my fair share of sleepy fishing towns with little observable industry.
Tourism Strikes Back
While natural beauty draws people to the island, it’s Reykjavik that’s really feeling the effects of tourism. After all, many people’s trips begin or end with a short stay in the capital, not to mention those on daily stopovers. The main international port of entry, Keflavík International Airport, is under comprehensive renovation trying to handle the ever-growing travel to and through Iceland. There are many international carriers such as Delta that have to dump passengers on the ramp, as opposed to a jet bridge. I was one of those planes which disembarked via runway stairs and subsequently bused to the nearest terminal entry.
While most rural towns wouldn’t observe a direct benefit from their country’s booming tourism, Iceland is unique. First, no one is there for the urban core, they’ve come to see glaciers, mountains, waterfalls, and fjords. Furthermore, there’s only one way around the country, and that’s Highway 1. Both of these constraints push people out into the country with rental car keys (and camera) in hand. All of the sudden, folks like me are patronizing small eastern fjord cafes at unprecedented rates.
What exactly is leading to all this new traffic? I explore a few reasons in Iceland: A Ring Road Journey, but ultimately a few distinct event put Iceland firmly in the world spotlight. A local newspaper editor aptly described the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption (the one that caused massive air traffic disruption) as the “greatest tourism advertisement imaginable”. While I highly doubt the Icelanders secretly induced a volcanic eruption, this gentleman was right. Everyone is taking the bait.
Last year, Iceland saw over 1.5 million visitors to a country only a fifth the population. If you figure most people visit for one week and concentrate their travels during the summer, I reckon that nearly one-third of the people I crossed paths with were tourists. But that ratio is much higher on the Ring Road which teems of accommodations, waterfalls, and hiking trails. As a case and point, I ran into multiple couples, multiple times, hundreds of miles apart. When everyone is going the same way as you, you’re bound to cross paths.
Reading op eds in the local Reykjavik Grapevine, it’s clear that people in Europe’s most northern capital are dealing with predictable challenges. Like many hot markets in the US, short-term vacation rentals in Reykjavik are leading to exploding rental prices and displacing long-time residents without the resources to keep up. And it certainly doesn’t help that tons of young people move from the countryside for education and work opportunities. Demand is high, but so too is the development. The area surrounding the tourist district is teeming with apartment and underground parking construction.
This shifting landscape is evaporating the long-time Reykjavik community and providing space for foreign investors to gobble up real estate. Some feel as if the city has lost the charm it once had and are convinced the public markets are full of tourists simply taking photos of each other.
Unfortunately I began to understand some satirical pieces of writing and art referring to the locals as part of a massive zoo. Iceland is a magical and beautiful place, but it’s also home to a very small population of homogeneous people. And there were plenty of times it felt as if I was simply barging into this natural landscape only to observe their lives behind glass. I can sympathize with those who have witnessed the unprecedented increase in tourism in the past 5-10 years.
As many level-headed people note, it’s not the tourist’s fault. They have come and will continue to come for the same reason I did: the remarkable landscape and one-of-a-kind beauty. And without digging further into local culture, policies, regulations, and economic markets, I can’t make any claims about the road blocks or opportunities which lie ahead for this city, or country. But I do hope the city finds an economically and socially positive solution to the growing dissonance.