Is Iceland Overcrowded?

 Tourists at Jökulsárlón Beach, Iceland

Tourists at Jökulsárlón Beach, Iceland

Is Iceland Overcrowded?

When I complain about tourists and photo workshops I do not mean to imply that I have any more right than anyone else to be at a destination. Sometimes photo workshop participants think that because they paid lots of money to go and shoot a place that they deserve the best locations more than others, but I do not feel that way. That would be very hypocritical of me since I am, in fact, a travel photographer and writer with the purpose of promoting travel, cultural, and environmental awareness. That said, as a travel writer, I need to point out the realities of my experiences to my audience as honestly as possible.

When I first visited Iceland in 2015, there were lots of tourists, but not so many that it hindered photography. Most people in Reykjavik spoke to me in Icelandic first because most of the people in town were still actual Icelanders. In other words, the number of visitors had not exceeded the number of residents in town (even on popular shopping streets like Laugevegur). Since then, the number of tourists in Iceland has not only increased dramatically, it had actually increased by 70% in 2016 (the number of American tourists, alone, exceeded the number of Icelanders in 2016). This was unprecedented and the small country of 330,000 inhabitants was not expecting, nor was it prepared for, such a sharp increase. It is estimated that 2.3 million people will visit Iceland by the end of 2017.

Photographers have always favored Iceland, but it wasn’t until after the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 that tourism got a huge boost. Iceland was struggling economically after the 2008 recession and welcomed tourism and the income it brought. Then came famous TV series Game of Thrones and music group Of Monsters and Men. Thanks to budget airlines like Wow Air, making the relatively short flight to Iceland is more affordable for Americans and Europeans alike. Add the cheap airfare, short flight, and the stunning natural beauty and you’ve got the recipe for “Iceland World” – everyone’s favorite European theme park complete with spas, volcanoes, trolls, and elves! (Bring the kids! Bring Grandma! It’s fun for the whole family!)

Is Reykjavik becoming too touristy? I would say that in the short span since my first visit in 2015, yes, in a way. Stores and restaurants have popped up providing more crappy souvenirs and tourist-friendly, generic Americanized menus. Luckily, my favorite spots (Bergsson Mathus, Sandholt Bakery, and Noodle Station) are still going strong, if not stronger now due to tourism (Sandholt has undergone a very swanky renovation). The rough-around-the-edges, almost punk rock feel, of Reykjavik is getting a lot more gentrified (for lack of a better word). I have also noticed a bit of price gauging in some restaurants, gas stations, and even hotels. A recent study showed that over 80% of Icelanders are in favor of steeper taxes and fees for travelers. I can’t help but understand why after my most recent visit.

My qualm is with the effect that this sharp boost in tourism is having on the natural environment. Iceland prides itself on energy efficiency and conservation of its uniquely beautiful landscape. Many tourists don’t respect the place. On my journey across Iceland last week, I saw trampled moss, people harassing livestock for selfies, pulling off the road in dangerous places, camping in places where overnight camping is not allowed, leaving trash strewn about, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended). It reminded me of how poorly some visitors treat the Blue Ridge Mountains where I live. It comes down to respect. If you’re visiting someone else’s country, show respect, follow the rules, don’t leave anything behind, and take only pictures.