Responsible tourism in Iceland

Traveling responsibly in Iceland increasingly involves traveling with the issues of overtourism and environment firmly in mind. The most responsible way to visit this beautiful, but incredibly popular island is avoiding those places clogged with day trippers and city breakers, and those months when visitor numbers shoot up like a spouting geyser.

Get beyond the Reykjavik region, and you can avoid many of the crowds, but once out in the wilds, stay as long as you can and treat the landscape with respect. Traveling on an organised small group tour is a good way to honour the environment’s extreme challenges and its vulnerability. Some of Iceland’s pristine wilderness is being damaged by independent travelers who don’t stick to official routes – a harsh landscape of lava or ice has a fragility that the wheels of a recklessly driven 4WD (or even a pair of hiking boots) can leave scarred for decades.

When it comes to wildlife, whales remain in the frontline of a fierce battle for hearts and minds between Iceland’s whaling industry and its environmental and tourist authorities. Your stomach is a key battleground, as most whale meat ends up on the plates of tourists keen for a foodie novelty. Trust us: the herring is much better in every way.

Is tourism a problem in Iceland?

As is often the way, it’s complicated. In some places, tourism in Iceland is extremely problematic, causing unaffordable housing for permanent residents and an unliveable downtown Reykjavik. In other places, tourism is proving to be a powerful and positive force that can almost solely be attributed to phasing out the whaling industry (while, ironically, also keeping the last whaling boat going – read more about that later).

Keep reading our guide to discover both the positive impacts of tourism in Iceland and the negative – and find out what you can do to help.

People & culture

Overtourism: are there too many tourists in Iceland?

The last two decades have witnessed a rapid change in Iceland’s fortunes. The banking crisis of 2008 saw unemployment triple and the housing market collapse. Icelanders, being independent, practical folk who are used to doing things for themselves, responded by putting their Prime Minister on trial for ‘negligence’ in mishandling the economy (he was eventually acquitted, after resigning).

They then spied an opportunity. With Iceland’s profile raised on the global stage and travelers tempted in by low post-crash prices, the country responded by taking a light touch approach to tourism, marketing it as a place where visitors don’t have to pay for anything, from major attractions to public toilets. It was hugely successful. Then, along came Game of Thrones, which used the glaciers and smoking national parks as the wintry land “Beyond the Wall” – encouraging thousands of fans to flock to Iceland.

Now, when plotted on a graph, tourism numbers resemble a Nike tick. In 2010, Iceland saw fewer than 500,000 tourists visit. However, by 2019, over two million international visitors entered its seaports and airports – with figures jumping by half a million each year between 2016 and 2019.
Visitor numbers now far outweigh Iceland’s population of just under 375,000 people.
This dramatic upswing in tourist numbers has revived Iceland’s economy, but at a price. Overtourism, which involves too many people visiting the same area at the same time, is now a problem in the Reykjavik region, where tourists on a short break or hopping off a cruise ship gravitate.

Visitor numbers now far outweigh Iceland’s population of just under 375,000 people. Parts of downtown Reykjavik have become unliveable for residents, with crowding and expensive house prices.

The government is reluctant to strangle the tourism goose that laid the golden egg, but with infrastructure, environment and people around the Reykjavik region increasingly affected by overtourism, a more managed, sustainable model of growth is urgently needed.

How to be a responsible tourist in Iceland

    There is no need to avoid Iceland altogether. You can visit without contributing to the overtourism problem by carefully choosing the places you travel to and when you visit. Try to visit Iceland outside of peak season (June, July and August) when tourist numbers are at their highest. You’ll still be able to enjoy activities available during those key summer months and may even benefit from cheaper rates. Travel beyond Reykjavik and the day trip destinations that lie nearby. Visit less popular regions like the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Westfjords and Icelandic Highlands where overtourism isn’t an issue. Join an organised tour by one of our responsible tour operators. They can take you to the far-flung and secret corners of Iceland that are ready to welcome you. You’ll enjoy an Icelander’s eye view of the country, spreading tourism revenue to places that can really benefit from it – and all while avoiding the crowds too. Read our guide to overtourism in Iceland for more information and more tips on how to avoid contributing to it.

Iceland & the Airbnb housing crisis

If you think that paying over 1,000 krona (over £6 GBP/$7 USD) for a pint of beer is expensive, then spare a thought for Icelanders who pay that year-round. The cost of living in Reykjavik is among the highest in the world – and one of the biggest expenses is soaring housing costs driven up by the demand in vacation rentals.

Many people in Reykjavik rent their homes on Airbnb and move out of town, or are unable to afford property here in the first place, thanks to the housing price rises that have accompanied the economic recovery and the surge in tourists willing to pay a pretty penny for short-term rentals.

Compared with other cities besieged by Airbnbs, the Icelandic government moved promptly to lay down legislation, introducing permits, restricting rental lengths to up to 90 days a year and slapping on business taxes for properties effectively running as hotels.

However, there’s still a severe housing shortage in Reykjavik, with the Icelandic Tenants’ Association declaring a state of emergency in the housing and rental market. Almost 22,000 properties are a second home (up from around 11,000 in 2005) and the average rent has doubled in a decade, putting it well above most European cities, which saw an average 15 percent rent increase.

How to be a responsible tourist in Iceland

    Avoid using Airbnb to rent out whole apartments or houses. Go back to Airbnb’s roots and try a homestay instead. Homestays and B&Bs are a brilliant way to bring tourists and local people together… when done well. Read our founder Justin’s take on why you should swap private vacation rentals for homestays.

Wildlife & environment

Tourist eruptions: Can you visit erupting volcanoes in Iceland?

Yes – and lots of people do. When Fagradalsfjall erupted in August 2022, news and social media channels were filled with images of bright orange lava arcing through the air – and the people gathered around to watch. There were similar scenes in March 2021, when Fagradalsfjall eurpted for the first time in 6,000 years. That lasted for over six months.

It’s no surprise that Iceland is a cauldron of volcanic activity. After all, most people come here to see these geologically young landscapes of black lava, sulphuric yellow meadows and smoking hot springs all born of the slowly moving tectonic plates. It’s a geography lesson in action. Eruptions are also usually no surprise to scientists and citizens, who have an excellent warning system in place.

Icelanders call these small, remote eruptions “tourist eruptions” thanks to their relatively low danger levels and accessibility. When they happen, Icelanders and international visitors are understandably and irresistibly drawn to see the spectacular show. National airlines even used images of Fagradalsfjall in an attempt to tempt back visitors when travel restrictions from the Covid-19 pandemic lifted.

There are risks to viewing volcanoes, of course – but probably not the ones you think. The hike to the lava show promises more trouble than the erupting red-hot magma. In order to see the lava glowing against pitch-dark skies, visitors set out after dark in remote regions. People unfamiliar with the landscapes and dressed in inadequate clothing have injured themselves while hiking over rough terrain. Even a whole year after an eruption, blackened lava flows are not as solid as they look – and often still sizzling hot inside.

How to be a responsible tourist in Iceland

    Keep a careful eye on news and weather reports. Although most eruptions don’t cause damage, flowing lava can move more quickly and more unpredictably than expected. Heed the advice from emergency services and volunteers, and follow any evacuation notices immediately. We don’t exactly recommend hiking to live volcanoes, but if you do then use a guide and read up on all the safety advice. Each eruption site will have its own unique challenges. Take the Icelandic pledge for tourists. We particularly like: “I will take photos to die for without dying for them”. Lava is protected by law however old it is, so don’t be tempted to swipe a bit of lava as a souvenir.
This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.

The land of fire & retreating ice: How is Iceland affected by climate change?

In the sleepy port of Stykkishólmur, on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, sits the Library of Water – an art installation of 24 floor-to-ceiling glass columns filled with meltwater from the major glaciers in Iceland. One column is the Okjökull, which made its last step from a glacier to a small cap of ice in 2014.

In 2019, Iceland unveiled a commemorative plaque at Ok titled A Letter to the Future by Icelandic author Andri Snaer Magnason, reading: “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as glacier. In the next 200 years all our main glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Like other nations around the Arctic Circle, Icelanders feel the effects of climate change more keenly than many. Glaciers are the face of it, retreating almost continuously since 1995. Vatnajökull glacier has shrunk so much that the loss of weight causes the land to rise from the sea, making it harder for boats at the nearby fishing town of Höfn to push out of the harbour – and even twisting the town’s underground sewer pipes. It’s an extra challenge to fishing communities who already face fish disappearing for colder waters, and more extreme and unpredictable weather. Scientists have also long been aware of a link between the large-scale shrinking of ice in volcanic active regions and increased eruptions.

Thankfully, Icelanders are in general excellent at climate action. Heating and electricity generation is largely made through renewable hydroelectricity and geothermal energy, and they elected environmentalist Katrín Jakobsdóttir as prime minister in 2017. But campaigners say things must go further, halting polluting industries such as aluminium manufacturing.

What you can do

    Continue the fight against the climate crisis and the changes it is wreaking on the world’s oceans, wildlife and people. It’s hard to know where to start as a traveler – our travel tips for tackling the climate crisis are a good place to begin. Back home, consider these practical tips for slowing climate change, which range from changing energy providers to supporting campaigns and climate activists. It’s good to question the ethics of flying to Iceland as a tourist, but flying here contributes just as much to the climate crisis as flying to any other far-flung place. If you choose to fly to Iceland, our best advice is to stay longer and make your trip count by supporting local businesses and remote communities that are disproportionally affected by the climate crisis. If that means venturing out to beautiful villages and feasting on fresh fish suppers, then so be it. That said, there are flight-free vacations to Iceland out there for European travelers – and you get to visit the Faroe Islands and Denmark too. Visit the Library of Water for a thought-provoking wander around preserved glacier water.

Whale watching vs. whale hunting

Whaling in Iceland is as hot an issue in Iceland as any of the landscape’s fiery emanations. Whaling began here in the 19th century, initially carried out by Norwegians, who pulled out after hunting local stocks almost to extinction in 1919.

Iceland itself only took up whaling in 1935 and continued for five decades, before pausing from 1986 to 2003, when ‘scientific’ whaling restarted – followed by commercial whaling in 2006. This was despite global disdain that saw over two dozen major nations make formal diplomatic protests over Iceland’s renewal of commercial whaling. But international condemnation of the slaughter of these magnificent ocean giants seems only to harden opposing attitudes from Hvalur, Iceland’s last remaining whaling company.

There’s an element of national stubbornness at play. Icelanders are proudly independent, and fiercely reluctant to let anyone tell Iceland what to do. Whaling was once a strong subject in Icelandic election campaigns, but most voters haven’t expressed any passion for pro-whaling since 2016.

In reality, Icelanders’ support for whaling has been declining for even longer than that. A poll by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that only 33 percent of the population was supportive of hunting fin whales – down over 20 percent in 10 years. Almost 65 percent felt whaling was bad for Iceland’s reputation. And a mere two percent of Icelanders say they eat whale meat regularly.

The whaling industry tries hard to muddy debate. So while Icelandic tourist officials strongly oppose whaling on the clear grounds that it seriously harms the growing whale watching industry, the Ministry of Fisheries strongly disputes this. The latter chuck in a further claim that whales decimate Iceland’s precious fish stocks – despite this claim being strongly denied by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

There is a very pertinent responsible tourism angle to the issue, since recent data shows that most whale meat now caught by Icelandic whalers goes to feed tourists. The IFAW and Icelandic Whale Watching Association launched a hugely successful “Meet Us, Don’t Eat Us” campaign to educate visitors, who often eat whale meat, thinking it is a traditional Icelandic food.

You can read more about the ins and outs of the debate in our article on whaling in Iceland.

How to be a responsible tourist in Iceland

    Even if you can’t convince pro-whaling Icelanders to shift their opinion on ethical grounds, striking an economic blow is easy. Simply don’t eat whale meat and boycott restaurants that serve it. Spend your krona on whale watching tours to show there is a good way to make money from whales that doesn't involve killing them. Read our guide to whale watching in Iceland to find out more about why observing these beautiful beasts in the wild is better than observing them on your plate.

A taste of Iceland: can you eat puffin?

Yes, but the real question is: should you?

The Atlantic puffin is one of the world’s best loved birds, anthropomorphically judged to be both cute and comic as they amble along cliffsides (though their prey might disagree…). And Iceland is the world’s principal spots to see the Atlantic puffin.

Until recently, around half the world’s population of this bird bred in Iceland from late May to August, with peak numbers believed to be in excess of eight million. However, numbers have rapidly plummeted across Europe, including the south of Iceland, cautiously creeping back up in the last few years – although not enough to remove them from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. In many places, colonies have been halved or worse. Thankfully, colonies elsewhere seem to be holding up, with vast numbers still ripe for watching on the cliffs of Grimsey, Borgarfjordur Eystri and the Westfjords.

Various culprits are suspected, but the leading one is global warming. Changing ocean temperature caused by warming currents and earlier ice thaws are believed to have driven traditional puffin prey such as sand eels out of reach of the Icelandic shore. In Maine, American puffin colonies were decimated by a similar change that drove away the herring they relied on.

An increase in extreme storms has also led to some colonies being destroyed by wind and waves. Raised CO² in the atmosphere may also be acidifying Icelandic waters, further affecting the presence of key feeding stock for the birds.

Large-scale egg collection could also play some part in the decline, as does hunting. But while Icelanders have long eaten puffin, these days the meat is largely relegated to important festivals – and for tourists. Like whale meat, you’re more likely to see tourists eating puffin.

A total ban on hunting puffins has been proposed, fiercely opposed by local people who have traditionally hunted puffins in places like the Westman Islands. None of this may do much to solve the issue, however, if the climate crisis is the prime culprit for the decline.

How to be a responsible tourist in Iceland

    This is a simple one: don’t eat puffin in the tourist restaurants of Iceland.

Responsible tourism tips in Iceland

Reykjavik’s various hot-pot geothermal pools are a popular draw for tourists as well as locals but bear in mind that you are expected to wash yourself without a swimsuit, often in communal showers, before getting in the water, as the people pride themselves on the cleanliness of the chemical-free pools. Just because you’ve hired a high clearance 4WD vehicle does not mean you can drive off-piste in Iceland. Expert local guides may sometimes go bombing off through a snow drift but visitors should stick rigidly to designated roads (however bumpy). All off-road driving and driving outside of marked tracks is prohibited by law, as Icelandic nature is delicate and tyre tracks from off-road driving causes substantial damage to vegetation, leaving marks that can last for decades. The same goes for hiking. Unless you’re following an expert local guide, stick to marked hiking paths only. Moss and lichen can take decades to grow back, thanks to the short Icelandic summers. Lava is protected under law, so avoid those landscapes completely. There’s no need to buy water in plastic bottles. Icelandic tap water (kranavatn) is delicious and safe to drink. Iceland is filled with creatives, so it’s easy to buy local souvenirs. Go on, buy that beautiful lopapeysa jumper with yoke pattern (the wool is warm and waterproof too) and stock up on collectable Björk and Ólafur Arnalds albums in the record stores in Reykjavik.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Moyan Brenn] [Overtourism (Reykjavik): Luigi Mengato] [Okjokull commermorative plaque: Rice University] [A taste of Iceland: can you eat puffin?: Thomas Fatin]