Overtourism in Iceland

It may seem as though Iceland has been on the traveler's radar for decades, but in fact this island nation has only become a hotspot for tourists comparatively recently. In 2010, Iceland received fewer than half a million tourists, but according to the Icelandic Tourist Board, almost 2.2 million people came in 2017, an increase of half a million in a single year. Tourist numbers are predicted to grow to 2.5 million in 2018, according to Iceland Monitor. It's a huge number, and all the more shocking when you discover that the population of Iceland is only 334,252. That means the total number of visitors in 2017 was more than six times the number of people living there.

What is overtourism?

Overtourism isnít about visitor numbers per se, itís about too many visitors landing in one particular destination Ė and itís happening in Iceland. The country is known for its wild, otherworldly landscapes, glacial lakes, black sand beaches and erupting geysers. It has remote shores, huge national parks and unspoiled harbours. Unfortunately, not enough visitors make it to see them. A stonking 98 percent of travelers who fly into Iceland come through Keflavik, 45 minutes from Reykjavik [1]. Many then treat Reykjavik as little more than a stopover, staying here briefly and perhaps popping to the Blue Lagoon before moving on, while others may make it to sights that are within a drive of the capital, such as the Golden Circle. This situation has led to overtourism.

What you can do

There is no need to scrub Iceland off your list of must see destinations. The solution is simply to travel responsibly, by thinking about the places you travel to, and the times you travel.
When it comes to place, that means looking beyond Reykjavik and the daytrip destinations that lie nearby. Visit less popular regions where overtourism isnít an issue and where your money will benefit local communities.
Timing your trip is also important. July and August remain peak months but, over the past three years, tourist numbers have been proportionately greater in winter than in spring, summer and autumn. Itís still worth traveling outside those popular summer months, though, particularly if you want to visit some of the key sights that ring Reykjavik. In addition, you may enjoy cheaper prices.
Avoiding peak July and August doesnít mean missing out. Most activities, from spotting the aurora to hiking, are available outside those busy months. May, June and September are great for whale watching, plus you may get a glimpse of the Northern Lights if you come in late September. June boasts long days, drier weather and warmer temperatures, and is a great time for hiking. Snow comes as early as September (and can linger to May) and while winters can be tough, there are lots of chances to see the aurora borealis during the long dark hours.
Another cause of Icelandís overtourism is its accessibility for independent travelers Ė just book an Airbnb, bag a cheap flight, hire a car and youíre off Ė but one of the easiest ways to swerve the issue of overtourism and travel responsibly is to join an organised tour. Tours take you off the beaten path, avoiding tourism honey pots and revealing a quiet, unspoiled side of the island. Small group tours bring environmental benefits, too. Youíll travel in a single vehicle, rather than contributing to the hire cars on the roads, and can travel safely during off peak seasons, when an experienced local driver can confidently navigate tricky road and weather conditions. Small group vacations also open up the chance to hike, cycle, snowshoe and cruise by small ship, with an expert guide leading you, experiencing the island in a way that many independent travelers never do. This style of travel maximises the positive impacts of your visit and minimises the negative ones. It also benefits you, as you enjoy Iceland at its best, experiencing its unique beauty without the crowds.
You can read more about the benefits of choosing a tour to Iceland here.

Causes of overtourism in Iceland

To understand one of the reasons why Iceland is experiencing overtourism you have to go back to the banking crisis of 2008, which in turn provoked the collapse of the housing market and tripled unemployment [1]. A crash in prices made Iceland more tempting to budget travelers, and Iceland responded by encouraging them in with a light touch approach, taking the line that more is better when it comes to visitor numbers, irrespective of what those visitors do once they arrive.
In financial terms, this has been hugely effective. Tourism largely saved the country after its economic crisis and has contributed about 10 percent to Icelandic GDP since 2016. Serious money. In the UK, tourism only accounts for about 7 percent of GDP. These figures also explain why there is a reluctance to cap numbers, to increase (or introduce) daily tourist taxes, to introduces tolls on roads, to charge cruise liners for docking or to even charge people to park up at major tourist attractions such as Thingvellir and Gullfoss, on the popular Golden Circle route.

Another cause of overtourism is Icelandairís long held policy of encouraging passengers to make a stopover in the country for up to seven nights, on any flight across the Atlantic, at no additional cost. People taking advantage of this often do no more than spend a night in Reykjavik, swelling the cityís already huge visitor population.
Perhaps even more harmful than this are the cruise ships that dock at Reykjavik harbour. Iceland Magazine reported that 2018 looks likely to set a new record in cruise ship passenger numbers. Port authorities are expecting as many as 144,000 passengers to be onboard the ships which are scheduled to dock in 2018, up from 127,000 in 2017.

What impact does overtourism have?

Overtourismís affects are far reaching. While Icelandís tourism key players were busy marketing the country to dig them out of the economic depression, little thought was given to the countryís infrastructure. Now, Icelandís roads are deteriorating under the volume of tour buses and hire cars that use them each day.
Facilities at key attractions are struggling to cope, too. The Iceland Monitor reported in 2015 that tourists were defecating and urinating outside at major sites, because public toilets were overcrowded and poorly maintained. Interestingly, it also reported that local people feel this links back to Icelandís open door policy on tourism. Itís been marketed as a country where you donít have to pay for anything Ė including the toilets. Consequently, at the main cafť at Gullfoss, where a fee is charged to use the toilets, some tourists refuse and go outside. This in turn makes it harder for the cafť to find funds to maintain the already overused facilities, and cleanliness standards drop, so all tourists suffer.
Accommodating the huge numbers of tourists that flood in is also an issue. The number of hotel rooms in Iceland has increased by 42 percent since 2010, but the total number of visitors has increased by 264 percent over the same period. Airbnb has helped meet demand. A map of Airbnb listings in Reykjavik is a blur of overlapping coloured points, indicating homes now available to rent, creating blanket coverage of the city. This has lead to property prices climbing, affecting local residents who, in addition, see central Reykjavik turning into a tourist ghetto, where few locals live and where long standing businesses such as shops and music venues are pushed out by tourist orientated chains and hotels.
Legislation was introduced in January 2017 attempting to limit the number of days a homeowner can rent out their property on Airbnb. Owners remain exempt from having to register their home as a place of business, which incurs taxes, so long as the property is rented out for no more than 90 days. For some homeowners, this has simply encouraged them to rent out their homes for longer periods, so that registering becomes cost effective. The Reykjavik Grapevine also reported in November 2017 that many homeowners simply ignore the legislation, with many long term Airbnb listings simply not registered, suggesting itís not been especially effective.
Cruise ship passengers also flood into Reykjavik, but only for a few hours, before returning to the ship for the night. It means they contribute to overcrowding in the city, but not too its economy beyond, perhaps, the price of a coffee and a puffin fridge magnet.
The impact on the environment is also concerning. Many destinations popular on bus tours today were once untouched natural wonders enjoyed in solitude by local families. Hiking trails are being degraded and famous sights damaged. Tourists routinely scrabble across precious moss that covers Thingvellir National Park and various lava fields, for example. [2] Some tourists drive off road, too, damaging fragile landscapes.

[1] Iceland and the Trials of 21st Century Tourism article on Skift
[2] Icelandís Troubled Environment on Saving Iceland
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Luigi Mengato] [Overtourism Top box: lucvanbraekel] [What is overtourism?: Robert Burgess] [What you can do: Min Zhou] [Key sights in Reykjavik: Matt Lamers] [Spotting the Aurora: Joshua Earle] [Small group travel: Ben Husmann] [Causes of overtourism: Ken Arneson] [Cruise ship: David Stanley] [What impact does overtourism have: James Brooks] [Hotels: Tim Regan] [Coffee: Aapo Haapanen] [Thingvellir National Park: NordForsk]