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 visited 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 & 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 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 worlds most beautiful scenery. Add to that the success of the Icelandic National football team in the last World Cup tournament, the film Walther Mitty, numerous scenes filmed as backdrop for the epic series Game of Thrones, But probably the most significant event that put the country on the map 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 fueling 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 amenities in many areas. Public toilets, rubbish bins & accommodation 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 leaving my comfort zone back in Munich I had heard & read a number of reports concerning crowding on the island, especially 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 provoking danger 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 or other distractions. That is a real reward for those seeking solitude, a priceless gift in a world that is otherwise so overcrowded, networked & fast moving. Such moments are becoming extremely difficult to find with many of the main attractions becoming over developed to cope with larger numbers of people looking for a pleasant day out with culinary & sanitary facilities to boot.
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, rubbish isn’t far behind. 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 or financial means to cope with this & other infrastructural 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 a number of 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 with a number of locals on the eastern side of the island it seems that they at least are expecting the next financial crash to be around the next corner. Similar to countries like England or France, Iceland’s economy is centralized around the capital city & this is where most of the money remains unfortunately. But is there so much money available & if so by who & where is it being used? One thing is for certain, Iceland had massive financial deficits in 2008 & much has been repaired in recent years but the country is investing huge amounts once again with borrowed money from banks & investors to get the island on the tourist map. As we are all aware, tourism is not a guaranteed solution to all problems, another volcano eruption blocking air traffic or just a bad summer season could break the back of an already fragile economy. As in every situation there are winners & losers. The winners are those that live & work in town & the masses of tourists who may fly cheaply with government subsidized airlines. The losers are the rest of the island inhabitants that receive little or no support from Reykjavik but are then floaded by us tourists with whom they can hardly cope due to lack of infrastructure. The biggest loser though is the island itself. At present Iceland is being literally trampled to death, if not under foot then from off-roading & glacial tours on the ice. There is little or no control inforced other than when the destruction of something is absolute. Iceland has become too popular, too quickly in my humble opinion.