Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Visitors are underestimating the country’s dangers—and taking locals for granted.
This month, Iceland’s ongoing tourism problems took a dark turn.
Over the first weekend of July, two tourists in separate incidents died while hiking in the country’s notoriously hardscrabble terrain. One male visitor died after falling from a cliff at Hljóðaklettar in Iceland’s northeastern highlands, while a woman lost her life after tumbling from the slopes of Iceland’s most photographed mountain, Kirkjufell, from a spot lying off the official path. While they may have been caused by unforeseen circumstances rather than negligence, the two deaths point to a worrying trend. Too many tourists are coming to Iceland without being fully prepared for its extreme terrain and weather.
Icelanders repeatedly warn visitors of what might seem the obvious dangers of approaching crashing surf or water at 175 degrees Fahrenheit, often to little avail. There’s more to Iceland visitors’ poor behavior than simple lack of preparation, however. The Icelandic public has been losing it recently over visitors’ bad behavior, sick of people who treat the country as some sort of fire-and-ice theme park where elves arrive to magically tidy up their mess.
Barely a week goes by without a tale of inappropriate public pooping going viral. Indeed, this story of tourists in East Iceland using a porta-potty as a luggage locker suggests restrooms themselves are among the few public places to be spared the wrath of visitors’ bowels. Iceland’s sparse population might possibly be leading tourists to bad behavior because they take perceptions of its emptiness to extremes and assume there’s almost nobody there. This could explain why the unwitting star of this video treated the road from Reykjavik to Keflavik Airport (among the country’s busiest) as if it were some backwoods horse track.
It’s not just toilet facilities that are the issue. When it comes to accommodation, many visitors seem to ignore the rules. As a high-cost country, Iceland can even be expensive to camp in, leading people to pitch tents in vulnerable landscapes, or go from door to door requesting free accommodation. Even Reykjavik’s main concert hall, the Olafur Eliasson-designed Harpa, has had to ban visitors from napping or making sandwiches inside after a growing number of tourists started treating it as a kind of daytime dorm.
There’s a clear failure to engage with Iceland’s realities going on here, albeit one that’s partly understandable. Given how easy the country is to reach nowadays, it can be easy to forget what an untamed place it remains. Almost all its citizens’ homes are restricted to a narrow ring of land around the coast—with the great majority of them around Reykjavik—while the interior is largely, rocky, icy desert. Much of this area is inaccessible outside the brief summer and even then, dramatically changing weather and rocky landscapes make it a challenging environment that even Icelanders enter with great care.
Even in the more inhabited coastland, crashing breakers on the beaches can and do sweep people out to sea, while rivers and lakes are pitted with volcanic springs that belch dangerously hot water or scalding steam. All this is stunning. But it isn’t risk-free.
At its worst, naive ignorance of this can spill over into insensitivity, however, suggesting an indifference to the country beyond one’s own immediate experience of it. Perhaps the worst recent example of this to hit the media came last month when somebody picked out the words “SEND NUDES” on a mossy hillside—a joke that might be funny had it lasted a week, but will actually take 70 years to disappear as the moss slowly, laboriously regrows.
Anyone who tries to be a sensitive traveler must surely wince hearing these stories. Iceland itself must also take some of the blame, though. The country went big on the tourist industry after the 2008 financial crisis, when its booming, unsustainable banking sector crashed, leaving the country’s national debt at seven times what its annual GDP was before the crisis hit. The tourism industry’s expansion has helped save the economy, but just as its banking sector over-extended itself in the run-up to the crisis, so its tourist sector has mushroomed before it had all the necessary facilities in place.
The country is now rushing to catch up—and genuinely trying. This past year, major sites such as the rift valley and former parliament site at Thingvellir, the rift valley in which Iceland’s parliament once met, and the waterfall at Gullfoss have been a whirr of construction activity, with footpaths being widened and ample new restrooms being installed. Still, visitor numbers continue to grow—almost 1 million tourists visited this year between January and June, a rise of nearly 30 percent compared to the same period last year. More restrooms, beds, and better preparation by visitors should help smooth out some of the industry’s excesses, while Iceland still remains an easy, manageable place to travel around outside peak seasons.
The rising value of the Iceland’s currency might possibly prevent the boom going even further. But if tourist arrivals continue to rise as they do—American visitor numbers have leaped 58 percent this year compared to the same period last year—it’s hard to see how the county’s facilities will manage to catch up with the flow.