In the 1980’s barely 80,000 tourists visited the island annually & it wasn’t until the turn of the century before the numbers exceeded the islands own population of around 300,000. Between 2003 & 2010 the number of foreign visitors grew steadily at an average of 6% per year then suddenly exploding between 2010 & 2014 at a rate of 20%. In 2015 the 1 million visitor barrier had been broken. 2018 saw this record being more than doubled, 2,3 million visitors on an island with just 300,000 inhabitants, with few or no public ammenities in many areas.
Recently I travelled to Iceland for the third time since 2008 & each time I visit I have noticed a dramatic change to the country, it’s economy & environment. After the financial crash in 2010 Iceland was more or less bankrupt & it saw the collapse of their government. The country had to react fast to recover massive losses & get the country’s economy back on its feet. To this end the Icelanders have built on their largest asset they possess, no, not the fish industry but their natural environment. The small island in the North Atlantic is a paradise for nature lovers, hikers, water sports, photographers, filmers & ornithologists. Knowing this, a massive campaign has been utilized in recent years involving the investment of again, loaned money to open up the country to the rest of the world exploiting some of the planet’s most beautiful scenery. Add to that the success of the Icelandic National football team in the last World Cup, the film Walther Mitty & numerous scenes filmed as backdrop for the epic series Game of Thrones. Probably the most significant event that put the country on the map though was the eruption of one of the country’s largest volcanoes on the south coast, Eyjafjallajökull in April 2010 that stole the headlines not just through the eruption itself but more due to the dramatic effect it had on commercial air traffic in Europe. Due to the volcanic ash flights were cancelled for many weeks.
With so much TV coverage worldwide for a country on the brink of disaster it was inevitable that as a consequence of the extensive advertising campaign thereafter many people were interested to discover for themselves the secrets of this volatile, yet tranquil gem that lies between the European & American continents. From this moment on the buck started to roll fuelling an economic comeback evolving through mass tourism, financed by oversees investors & banks all looking for new areas to produce revenue. My latest visit to the country has left me with the impressions that this economic pressure could develop into another disaster with undefinable scale, not just for Iceland but for commerce worldwide because the island is vulnerable to economic boom & bust cycles. Iceland isn’t just volatile due to volcanic activity it seems.
Before the finance crisis Iceland earnt its keep primarily from the fish & aluminium smelting industries, fishing has become difficult with fluctuations in annual productions due to over fishing & climate changes globally.
After devaluation of the local currency, the kroner by two-thirds, the Icelandic folk had enough & voted out their government, replacing it with a new party & prime minister who immediately steered the country away from further flirts with high finance & started to concentrate on building on the strengths of the country itself, its people & its land.
The rest is history, Iceland has developed at a breathtaking rate in recent years, repairing much of the financial damage done in the decade previously but for what price? In the 1980’s barely 80,000 tourists visited the island annually & it wasn’t until the turn of the century before the numbers exceeded the islands own population of around 300,000. Between 2003 & 2010 the number of foreign visitors grew steadily at an average of 6% per year then suddenly exploding between 2010 & 2014 at a rate of 20%. In 2015 the 1 million visitor barrier had been broken. 2018 saw this record being more than doubled, 2,3 million visitors on an island with just 300,000 inhabitants, with few or no public ammenities in many areas. Public toilets, rubbish bins & accomodation are rarities in many areas, especially in the far eastern reaches of the island. Most tourists stay within reach of Reykjavik taking daily trips with buses to the main attraction on the Golden Circle, then returning to their comfortable hotels in the evenings. Many are stopover tourists, enjoying a welcome break between flights to & from America & Europe. They too venture not so far from the capital. Even so, if just 100,000 people venture further east, hiring cars & campers, going on hiking tours, whale watching or glacier treks the infrastructure is totally overwhelmed.
Before I left my comfort zone back in Munich I had heard many reports about crowding on the island, espacially in the Summer season between June & September where all main attractions were bursting at their seams due to overcrowding not only at the attractions themselves but also the parking spaces congested with large mobile campers & tour buses. Many places are only accessible over badly surfaced tracks with constant potholes along the way making driving conditions rough & very stressful for the axles of rental cars.
Most visitors would moan about driving on such tracks in the middle of nowhere with distances of 30 km or more but that is Iceland. The legendary Ring Road that meanders around the complete island has areas where the tarmacced surface suddenly gives way to a gravelled track adding dangers of gravel incurred damage to windscreens & paintwork. When you arrive at the attraction you will often find nothing but the attraction, no parking space, no toilets, no cafe, no waste disposal but above all, often no people, no plastic bottles & tin cans, no mobile phones & no noise. That is a real reward for those seeking solitude that’s priceless in a world that is otherwise so networked & fast moving. Such moments are becoming more difficult to find with many of the main attractions at least being developed to cope with larger numbers of people looking for a pleasant day out to a waterfall or glacier with culinary & sanitary facilities.
The Icelandic landscape is literally being trampled to death by the influx with many areas or paths being cordened off due to vegetational destruction. Instead of the Offroad vehicles it is the masses of feet that are destroying the very fragile surface. Climbing onto lava rocks coated in centimetre thick moss or trampling through hilly areas disturbing ground breeding birds, jumping on & off of icebergs in the lagoon or clambering around on glaciers all add to that destruction that often causes irreparable damage.
Where humans are to be found is also rubbish. At this point I would like to say that most people are really making great efforts not to throw their rubbish into the landscape but as we all know there is always a minority that couldn’t care less. So why is there a lack of bins throughout the country? It is quite simple, not only is waste disposal expensive but the country just hasn’t the manpower to cope with this and other problems. Iceland has National parks with just a handful of park rangers, if they exist at all. I can’t remember ever having seen one & they are greatly needed to protect & to educate. America is a good example where I can say I have profitted on numerous occasions from interesting historical & geological information that they share with visitors. They are not just protectors of the park environment but also for the safety of the people visiting, this is non-existent in Iceland at present.
So where is Iceland heading? Good question, after talking to a number of locals on the eastern side of the island it seems that they are waiting for the next financial crash to happen. Like other countries like England or France, power is centralized around the capital city & this is where the largest slice of the money stays unfortunately. A lady working in a cafe in east Iceland rather temperamentfully described how the government had enough funding to build the new conference centre/concert hall Harpa but had no money to fill the holes in the roads.
The much needed tourist infrastructure if Iceland is to sustain the industry’s growth for the future has also barely reached the more remote areas of the island. Hotels are being built for the growing number of visitors but the ring road is still in areas not tarmacced, not to mention the lack of public toilets or waste bins. I see this critically from both sides of the coin; on the one hand, holiday is about comfort, enjoyment & happy experiences & when you come from almost over developed countries where everything is organized or so it seems at least then visiting a country with less manpower & funds means dropping down a gear or two where expectations are concerned. The other side of the coin says that one goes to Iceland to experience something totally different from other countries & one should respect the fact that the island can’t cope with so many visitors yearly. I would rather see less tourism & leave the infrastructure as it is but it doesn’t quite work that way unfortunately. Once a country becomes dependent on revenue from a particular industry then it leads to becoming a vicious circle where with the money you expand to make more money or with less income you go bankrupt & this is what is happening right now in Iceland, an island of booms & busts.