Until June, it had been a couple of years since I last traveled in Iceland during the summer.
In those two years there have been a lot of changes, changes we have reported on extensively.
Most notably, between 2012 and 2013 there was an increase in visitors to Iceland of around 140,000—around 40 percent of Iceland’s population—taking the total number of annual visitors from 647,000 to 781,000.
In June this year, there were more than 35,000 additional visitors compared to the same month two years ago.
I remember my trip in June 2012 well. My travel companion and I took a road trip along the South Coast, starting with a slight detour to Lake Kleifarvatn and geothermal area Krýsuvík.
For most of the trip, we felt like we had the place to ourselves. At Seljalandsfoss we were among a handful of visitors, nearby Skógafoss was busier but not crowded, as was Vík and Skaftafell.
Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, a must-see for visitors with enough time to get out to the southeast corner, was also not that busy and again there were times when we could still get away from the crowds.
The year prior, we had walked the popular highland Laugavegur route from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk. Being June, it was early in the season and again it didn’t feel very busy.
This year, things were a little different. I didn’t make it to Landmannalaugar but there were noticeably many more people in Þórsmörk.
An Icelandic woman who now lives in Norway expressed to us her frustration with the sharp growth in tourism numbers. “Iceland is changing. I don’t understand what they’re trying to do with this [tourism industry],” she told us, adding that she’s almost shocked now when she runs into fellow Icelanders while traveling the country.
The Laugavegur hike, and Landmannalaugar in particular, has long been popular but now it seems the area can’t take any more visitors. The municipality of Rangárþing is preparing a new plan for Landmannalaugar that includes a ban on allowing visitors to stay overnight at the site.
Kristinn Guðnason of the municipality’s planning committee said in an interview with Morgunblaðið earlier this month that the area cannot handle any more visitors and that accommodation must be moved to the edges of settled areas.
On a recent visit to Seljalandsfoss, the car park was bursting at the seams, buses were lined up and cars overflowing onto the road. Þingvellir too was crowded. And last weekend at Lake Mývatn, accommodation was very hard to come by.
In June, Edvard Huijbens, director of the Icelandic Tourism Research Centre (ITRC), said in an interview with ruv.is that the issue needs to be discussed more thoroughly.
“What we have to face is that Iceland is primarily a tourist destination. Tourism has become our largest export sector; it is the industry which generates the most foreign exchange. Iceland is a destination. We must discuss this. What I’m worried about, or find more interesting in this discussion, is a certain irritability towards the industry. These are warning signs.”
Edvard made a very good point. The growth in tourism is a development that like everything else has it’s pros and cons. It provides much needed foreign exchange but for locals, we’ve also seen restaurant and rental prices in downtown Reykjavík go up as people try to cash in on the booming industry. The lack of affordable housing in central Reykjavík is partly due to the increase in apartment owners renting out their accommodation to tourists.
More and more buildings are being turned into hotels, guesthouses and short-term lease apartments, pushing out local residents.
While there is much to be said about what city councilors and government ministers could be doing better, tourists too have a responsibility. Numbers and policies are one thing, but visitors must take care of the places they visit.
Seeing rubbish left behind, people venturing off marked paths or reading stories about off-road driving is infuriating. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to remind Icelanders of this too.
It may only be a minority of visitors who have such careless behavior but that’s enough to leave irreparable damage to Iceland’s fragile nature.
When in Iceland, please keep in mind the Traveler’s Code:
Leave camping and picnic sites as you would wish to find them.
Never bury litter or leave it lying around.
Never light open fires on vegetated land.
Never dislodge stones or build cairns.
Keep water clean and safeguard springs and pools.
Keep vegetation undamaged.
Keep wildlife undisturbed.
Never damage geological formations.
Respect the tranquility of the countryside.
Never drive off roads.
Keep to marked footpaths when requested.
Respect conservation rules and wardens’ instructions.
As stated on the website of the Environment Agency of Iceland, “damage to rock and ground formations can never be repaired. Vegetation is sensitive in many areas and the ground is rough, loose and easily rutted. Damage to plant life takes a long time to repair because of Iceland’s short annual growth period. Wind and rain can make the scars worse.”
So, while tourism records are broken in Iceland, and forecasts predict this will continue, I hope people will think twice before they run or drive off the path or chuck that garbage or cigarette butt on the ground.
Leave the place how you would like to see it, in the same (or better—help that stray piece of trash find its way to the bin) state than when you arrived.
Zoë Robert – zoe(at)icelandreview.com