Saturday, September 30, 2017

The tourism surge in Iceland needs to slow

I keep reading stories floating across social media platforms and on a few outdoor blogs I follow about masses and masses of tourists flooding to this remote island in the North Atlantic. 

 This topic even came up when I was out to dinner last night, resulting in a quality debate over the trending question, is Iceland overcrowded? I think the answer is yes, it absolutely is.

When I was in Iceland less than a year ago, I was too was surprised and a bit shocked at the level of tourism. Almost overwhelming at times. And I went for 15 days during the off-season (late October into November).

The past six or so years, Iceland's tourism boom has skyrocketed to peak levels. Peak, peak, overflowing levels. More and more people are flocking here to experience the raw beauty and unique Nordic culture of this country of just over 335,000 people. The surge in tourism has helped the country's economy tremendously. A 2017 study done by the Icelandic Tourist Board called out some 466,287 billion ISK (Icelandic Krona) in spending by foreign visitors and nearly 30,000 tourism-related jobs being created. Those numbers are anticipated to rise year after year. Per an article in Iceland Magazine, tourism's share of the country's GDP rose to 6.7% in 2015 (with that number expecting to jump to 8.2% for 2016). The total number of foreign visitors to Iceland also rose 39% in 2016 alone compared to 2015, contributing to a grand total of some 1,792,200 tourists. To put that into perspective, six years ago in 2010, Iceland had just 488,600. Wow. The top four countries with incoming visitors? The USA, UK, Germany, France, and China. Now there estimating that number will reach 2.3 million tourists by the end of 2017. 2.3 million! Enough number spitting.

But it's starting to get out of hand, a quick Google News search pulls up stories with headlines "Tourist risks Her Life For a Selfie at Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland"... or ... "Iceland’s Tourism Boom — and Backlash"...or "Iceland Is Sick of Tourists' Bad Behavior"...and "Iceland Residents Aren’t Embracing Chinese Tourism Investment." You get the point. Yet surprisingly, some 64% of Icelanders have somewhat of a positive view of foreign travelers. In 2017 however, 71% of Icelanders thought there were too many tourists during the peak season, with 79% voicing concerns that the "tourist pressure on Icelandic nature is too high." 

I can vouch for some of those headliners, as while driving around the country in a rented Suzuki Jimny 4x4, I had my fair share of frustrating head-shaking moments. I saw loads of tourists littering, defecating on the sides of roads or along hiking paths, driving dangerously erratic, yelling and rushing around with selfie sticks, throwing coins into hot springs, people climbing over "CLOSED" barriers near cliffs in tennis shoes to get photos with their iPads or cell phones, smoking cigarettes then throwing the butts on the ground in places that easily would appear on the cover of National Geographic...just obnoxious, disrespectful shit (sorry but not sorry about the profanity). It was as if there was no regard for the surroundings or land these tourists were visiting.

Iceland is overrun and overused. Something needs to get done pronto in order to accommodate the yearly wave of tourism. Many of the popular destinations scattered throughout the country have accommodating infrastructure that's falling apart and over-trampled. The current pathways, railings, rest areas, stairs, observation platforms, and so forth- are great for steady flows of visitors but not millions and millions. There aren't many bathrooms at some spots nor enough parking or trash cans to keep pace with these rushes of curious tourists. These aren't complaints, trust me, rather observations and areas that need improvement if Iceland isn't going to scale back on the number of visitors coming into its doors from abroad. The already built infrastructure at these attractions (both historical and natural) are simple and solid, but many were constructed years ago before visitation numbers jumped past the seven-figure mark. 

Take Skógafoss, a gorgeous waterfall in the southern part of the country. It's along Route 1, the Ring Road, and gets its hefty share of foot traffic from visitors. There's a narrow metal stairway to the right of the falls that takes you up to the top of the waterfall. At peak visitation times, I saw tons of people hopping the knee-high rope barrier and trudging alongside the stairwell, leaving heavy muddy footprints in the ground. People even strayed farther away from the designated trail to inch precariously close to drop-offs for a better view. That amount of foot traffic has and will continue to cause damaging erosion. The same goes for Seljalandsfoss, another uber-popular waterfall everyone lusts to visit. There's only a sole, narrow path that meanders its way around and behind the waterfall. When I went, there were probably 150 people standing in line, slowly crawling their way around the back of the waterfall. Impatient folks again, trekked off the trail, slipping around and causing damage to the surrounding landscapes...and of course dropping snack wrappers on the ground. Where's the respect?

What Iceland needs is a program similar to civilian conservation corps organizations here in the U.S.A. If you've traveled to a state park or national park, chances are you've walked on trails, stood on observation platforms and climbed stairs that were built by groups of high school, college and young adults, looking to give back and help make our public lands better, cleaner and more accessible. When I was at Perrot State Park last fall, on the other side of Wisconsin, a towering staircase made of solid wood was recently being finished as part of a conservation corps work project, to replace a rickety aging one that had started to fall apart. Maybe Iceland has something like this in the works or planning stages, but I hope it happens soon before more damage happens.

Perhaps Iceland needs to take a stronghold approach to cut the number of visitors into its country for a while, to allow time for these constantly trekked places to just pause, heal, and recover. Maybe drastically curtail visitors for a season or month, so crews can get out to these natural and historical attractions to make repairs, cleanup, and start tourist infrastructure projects. At the moment you need nothing more than a passport and a plane ticket to arrive in Iceland. Perhaps charging for a tourist visa will thwart off the hordes of incoming tourists for a while or then put a limit on the number of tourists visas given out...just for a short time period until the country can recover and be confidently ready to give the green light again to a full-on 2.3 million visitors. But even that idea...draws controversy. Do you ban or limit people from enjoying public lands? Hell no, but if a country's historical and natural landmarks are at risk of falling apart than maybe that needs to happen for a brief span.

If you're going to go visit Iceland (and I strongly encourage you to), be a traveler, not a tourist.

Be respectful, please, of this small country- its patient, calm hospitable people and its surreal, clean, untouched, mind-blowing landscapes. Venture onward and far beyond the common, cliche 'Golden Circle' itinerary, get out of Reykjavik and explore beyond the city of all the island has to offer. The same aforementioned study done by the tourism board shows that the vast majority of people visiting Iceland, only go an hour or so outside of the city to nearby attractions- you're missing the absolutely incredible places scattered throughout the rest of the country. It's like someone drew a red border on the map and people just won't go past it. You will instantly regret once you board that plane back home at the Keflavik airport that you didn't get to see this place or that because you didn't want to drive an extra few hours or spend the money on another tank of gasoline. However and whenever you do visit Iceland, make sure you leave the smallest footprint possible so we can preserve this pristine place for others to experience too.