On a crisp morning last Fall not far from Mývatn, I was outdoors meditating on the stillness of the early hour, entranced by the signature quietude Iceland is known for. Soon a bus arrived and disgorged a large group of Chinese visitors, shattering the peace. The herd busied itself with the mandatory selfies, punctuated by a cacophony of yelling and chatter. Fifteen minutes later they were gone, but not before fouling the purity of the atmosphere. My Icelandic friend, a sensitive soul from the rural parts, shook his head in disbelief.
This was just the first human cargo of the day and the cycle was going to repeat multiple times over the next few hours, he lamented. After all, Iceland is now on the “bucket list” of a billion people around the world. Days earlier during excursions into remote areas of the Highlands, we had espied trash strewn about. The number of times we came across litter in what are meant to be pristine areas was alarming.
At my hotel in Grindavík, I was witness to a noisy group at the breakfast buffet, dipping fingers directly into the tray of butter. The jostling at Keflavík now resembles an unpleasant bus station in crowded Third World countries. Not even the luxury of Saga Class travel on Icelandair insulates you – unkempt cabins, filthy bathrooms and apathetic service define the experience. But so long as the dollars keep rolling in, who cares?
How did Iceland come to this? This is no longer the Iceland I fell in love with over a decade ago and dedicated myself to exploring photographically. The Golden Circle is no longer golden but reduced to a cheap rusty trinket for the hordes checking off their “bucket list.” Jökulsárlón has become a zoo of drones and bodies. In summer, there are more people than midges in Mývatn. Who destroyed the Icelandic solitude?
To me, it wasn’t a matter of flying in, shooting up a terabyte worth of photos, and flying out. I devoted time to studying Iceland, its history, people and cultural nuances. I can read and pronounce Icelandic words, not expertly but good enough to pass muster. To now witness the distortion of the land, its ethos, and the fundamental transformation – for the worse - in its people is dispiriting. It feels like a violation, a desecration. What was once an open society and at its core a uniquely decent people seem much less so.
I have seen this movie before. I was born and raised in tiny Goa, on the west coast of India, once an idyll, now destroyed by tourism and the deluge from the rest of India. It didn’t take long to turn that paradise into a swamp. I fear the same fate awaits Iceland. The worst is yet to come. Wait until the Indians and Chinese ‘discover’ Iceland (well, the Chinese already have). Can the tourism genie be put back into the bottle and the ongoing disaster reined in? I’m afraid the answer is No. The powerful financial interests that benefit from the current situation will scuttle any attempt to derail their gravy train. If anything, Icelandair wants to ferry in even more bodies with every passing year.
There is one and only one way out for Iceland and it is not pleasant to contemplate. It isn’t something I hope for, given the hardship it will bring to a lot of Icelanders. Recall that it was the Eyjafjallajökull eruption that inaugurated this tourism boom. Another eruption – Katla? - can end it. But the strength of the eruption has to be in the sweet spot – strong enough to disrupt tourism but not so strong that human life is endangered. So – will Katla save Iceland? Do Icelanders want to save Iceland?