Usually, my travel posts attempt to be poetic, painting a picture of somewhere wonderful, set in a field of allegory and dreams. I want to entice a person to visit a place, to enchant them, to expose a beauty. However, sometimes human beings ruin the beauty of a place, and I have to document that instead. I have been going to Iceland periodically for a decade now; it’s time I faced reality a bit.
Iceland has changed, and it feels like my fault. Yes, that is appallingly grandiloquent, and more than a little arrogant, but it is true. I have been encouraging friend and family alike to visit Iceland for as long as I have been in love with the place. Some of them have taken me up on the advice, which is nice. I have enjoyed being a go-to guy for advice on things to do in Iceland for the people around me.
For clarity, this is not a piece where I knock Iceland and the Icelanders. I have issues, and I have seen myriad changes; my issues are with tourists, with tourism, and with human nature itself. I will not try to dissuade people from going to Iceland; it’s my favourite country on the planet, and it beguiles me infinitely. I’m just not convinced that everything which is currently happening to tourism there is as sustainable as their electricity supply. I’m going to have to get in to some specifics here, I can tell.
Popularity is a disease for a tourist destination. Just like the Observer Effect informs us that a system under observation will be changed by that observation, tourists change a destination. It is currently the case that more than three times the population of Iceland visits Iceland every year. Most cluster around Reykjavik, taking tours out to the most famous sights – Gulfoss, Geysir and Þingvellir forming the classic “Golden Circle” tour. It makes a small part of the world feel very congested these days.
And where there are people, there are businesses who will helpfully offer opportunities for the divestment of material wealth. At every popular tourist destination there is now a full shopping mall, full of shite. Yes, on the positive side, these malls also provide sustenance, shelter and the facilities necessary for the weary bus passenger, but they also afford a great many opportunities for the acquisition of ephemera. I am currently wearing a rather lovely t shirt I bought at Gullfoss in 2008.
This commercialisation of Iceland’s tourist sites, while perfectly understandable, takes one away from the air, the bite of the climate and the difficulty of access which many people came to the island in search of. The profits of the shops and car parks seem to go in to maintaining access, but the presence of boutiques means you could be anywhere on earth, rather than on a unique rock.
Reynisfjara is a popular spot for tourists to visit: Huge basalt columns rise from grey sand; a cave, hewn from the face of the rock sweeps back for a few metres; in the distance, an arch and a stack – standing in for the Statue of Liberty – take visitors to the Planet of the Apes. It has been used as a filming location for Game of Thrones, and it is a beautiful place to take a pleasant seaside stroll.
At least it used to be. Today, what was once a small car park, suitable for the visitors this obscure spot on the south coast once received, is now a collection of brackish potholes, topped with many clustered tour buses. Big tour buses: the biggest on the island. They are surrounded by the cars of other visitors. At the end of the car park is a café, built to fuel the masses. This is a Sunday afternoon in October. Ten years ago, you would not be able to find a tour in Iceland in October; ten years ago, you would not be able to find a tour to Reynisfjara. Now you can get a tour anywhere, at any time.
In the past, the only people to venture this far were adventurous; clad in layers of high tech fabrics, bearing packs of freeze dried space food and geodesic tents. Now it’s everyone. Brian from accounts, with his beer gut and BO was there last week. He bought a posh new camera for it. Idiots clamber up reynisdrangar, pose, pretending to be having rowdy sex. A moron ‘does the robot’ on the foreshore.
Then again, the tourism explosion has created huge opportunities for expansion. Where in the past it was true that there were only a limited number of places set up for tourists to visit easily – and so they got swamped – now there are fantastic places popping up all of the time, with more creativity and awe on offer than ever before. The LAVA Centre, outside Hvolsvöllur, and the Lava Tunnels tour in Reykjanes are two of the most innovative and outstanding experiences I have ever had in Iceland. My four year old loved them both too. Going to new things takes a lot of the pressure off the old.
Then again, the influx of tourists has left its mark on the service sector of Iceland. Once upon a time, the tourism of Iceland was effectively outsourced to a bunch of foreign businesses who set up offices in the capital, and served the hardy few visitors. No more. Now, any outhouse, lean to and prefab has been converted to a restaurant, a visitor’s centre or an exhibition. Everywhere you look, on any road in Iceland, there are businesses being set up by diversifying farmers, all eager to tap in on the new income stream. They vary in quality, but they more than make up for that in limitless choice.
Then again, life for the tourist in Iceland is easier than it ever has been before. Signs are in English as well as Icelandic; facilities are easier to use; there is an understanding that we are all very welcome.
This piece was almost called Iceland Ruined, but that’s not possible: Iceland will never be ruined. It’s made of harder stuff than that; it’s survived harder challenges than this; it will outlive all of us, and it will do so smiling. The fact is that the world changes. Some of the tourism changes to have gone on in Iceland over the past decade have been for the worse; many of them are unsustainable, at least as long as we only look as far as Reykjavik. Look at a map of Iceland, and Reykjavik is only a tiny dot.
The solution is to get tourists to see the rest of the country, to take control of their own destinies. That runs us in to two problems: firstly, getting around Iceland is either very slow, or very costly. The flag carrier is starting to offer transfers from Keflavik to other principal Icelandic towns and cities – Akureyri, Ísafjörður and Egilsstaðir – but this process is slow. Once it is easy to get to all four corners, Reykjavik will breathe a sigh of relief. The second issue is the prohibitive and punitive nature of car hire in Iceland. If action can be taken on this, then people will be far freer to stay outside the capital.
If the future is bright, then the future is most certainly Icelandic. It may be going through a painful growth phase right now, with numbers being too high and some developments ill-considered, but it is very much getting there. Brilliant additions outweigh horrors, and that’s the most important thing.