Please Do Not Close The Door, Iceland

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The Northern Lights above the ash plume of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano Lucas Jackson / Reuters

We have had a thing for Iceland for a few years now, mainly due to Seth’s honors thesis. But none of us currently contributing to this blog have actually been there, yet. There is a plan in the air, very vaguely, for several of us to meet up there one day soon. Thanks to writers such as the Atlantic‘s Feargus O’Sullivan, and our own ongoing discussion on travel conundrums, we are not rushing into the plan, but contemplating it in back burner mode. We know we cannot wait forever:

Iceland vs. Tourists

It’s not easy fitting 1.2 million annual visitors onto an island of 330,000 residents.

Those numbers are powered partly by a “Game of Thrones Effect” that has seen fans of the TV series flock to its shooting locations. The 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which has since become a tourist attraction, also helped to push up its profile as a vacation spot—perversely so, given that the eruption initially led to 107,000 flights across Europe being canceled. Given the rocky waters the country has been sailing through since the 2008 financial crisis, the revenue brought in by this spike in tourism is no doubt welcome. But the sheer volume of visitors to what was until recent decades a remote part of the world is still causing major stress. So how can Iceland keep welcoming people while making sure it isn’t trampled underfoot?
For one thing, there isn’t always enough space to put everyone. By January of this year, the country’s Nordic Travel Agency was already worrying that Iceland’s accommodations would be fully booked all year. In a pattern repeated across Europe, this puts a strain on residents, as accommodations that could be available to locals are rented out to tourists.
The capital city of Reykjavik, whose metro area is home to the majority of the country’s population, is building many new hotels, but is facing a set of tourism-related problems familiar to many other cities. Tourist-oriented chains are pushing out long-standing local businesses such as food shops and music venues in the city center, eroding some of the charm that helped to attract visitors in the first place. The number of Airbnb rooms has increased 124 percent in a year, and the residential character of some streets is under threat as vacation rentals proliferate there. There are now 102 flats available on Reykjavik’s main street alone.
Problems outside the capital region are more distinctively Icelandic. This is raw-boned, hardscrabble country, both thinly populated and thinly served by public amenities. That’s much of its attraction, of course—the idea of having ancient lava fields, raging waterfalls, and mossy ravines more or less to yourself. You’re far less likely to be alone nowadays, though, and many of the easier-to-access areas are groaning under the pressure of not being as unfrequented as they once were. Land at some beautiful spots is being trampled by too many feet, while basic facilities such as parking and toilets are limited. This has led to unfortunate incidents that include desperate tourists turning the graves of Iceland’s greatest poets into an impromptu bathroom. Less gross but also less forgivable are tourists who drive off-road, damaging fragile landscapes and thus partly ruining the wildernesses that they have traveled so far to witness…

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