What have we done to Iceland?What have we done to Iceland?


May 25, 2017

5 min read
Words & Photos:

Nature lovers the world over are flocking to the remote island nation in record numbers, for better or worse.

On a remote glacial belt along the south coast of Iceland, an ice-capped crater bubbled with hot lava for centuries, until one unassuming day in the spring of 2010, the now-famous Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, shooting its fiery contents so high into the sky that it interrupted air travel over northwest Europe for nearly a week.

One hundred thousand flights were cancelled, the largest shut-down since World War II, and $1.7 billion was lost worldwide due to the widely broadcasted eruption, all during a time when the quaint Nordic island was already amid a financial and economic collapse. Little did Icelanders know the media frenzy that followed would lead to a global obsession, and with it a swarm of tourists that would eventually far outnumber the locals and flip the quiet country’s culture upside down.

Iceland was almost the world’s best-kept secret, abundant with postcard-worthy glaciers, volcanic springs, and an unmatched view of the Northern Lights. The best part—lending to its authentically wild feel—there was hardly anyone around. The population of Iceland, a country one third the size of New Zealand, is a measly 300,000. The number of tourists predicted for 2017? Spoiler alert: two million.

mountains meet the sea
  1. Where the mountains meet the sea. Low tide at Stdokksnes.

Many Icelanders are encouraging a cap on the number of visitors per year.”

After the eruption, the government and stakeholders in Icelandic tourism launched the “Inspired by Iceland” campaign to show that their country is, indeed, a safe place to visit—even with 35 active volcanoes. And it worked. A little too well, in fact. Since 2012, just two years after the launch of campaign, the number of tourists visiting Iceland has risen by as much as 30 percent each year.

Could it be the moody landscapes that fuel Chris Burkard’s Instagram feed? Or Icelandair’s notoriously long layovers? Maybe it’s the Game of Thrones tours (seriously, Google it) that have led to an influx — no, stampede — of tourists to the island. The answer is likely a combination of it all, plus a handful of other overlooked variables. Either way, one thing is for certain, the small sliver of Earth that once seemed so private, undiscovered, and undisclosed, has become a circus of untamed tourists, amounting to more than just the annoyance of locals.

West Fjords
  1. A forgotten homestead somewhere in the West Fjords.

The hordes have caused previously nonexistent traffic jams on Iceland’s already scarce country roads—to the point where off-roading through sacred elf habitats has become an actual problem. The government has even considered charging a fee for previously free-entry natural spaces in order to support the infrastructure for their growing number of visitors.

Many Icelanders are encouraging a cap on the number of visitors per year. Especially the residents whose remote, quiet homes are at risk of being neighbored by new airports and kitschy souvenir shops.

And in the capital of Reykjavik, there are now almost 4,000 Airbnb properties (a 124 percent increase from 2015) wreaking havoc on the real estate market. Apartment dwellers must now receive blessings from all other tenants before listing their flats on the home sharing site. Even the Icelandic government is saying “enough is enough” as it works toward implementing a 90-day annual cap on Airbnb listings before hosts will be taxed.

  1. Five hour sunrises at the glacier lagoon, Jökulsárlón.


Surpassing fishing and aluminum smelting, tourism is now Iceland’s top industry, accounting for 34 percent of export revenues — double what it was in 2010. With these striking statistics in mind, it’s not difficult to draw a parallel to the banking boom and bust that led to the very economic collapse that precluded the rise of tourism in the first place.

So, what if travelers decide next year that Iceland has lost its small-town authenticity, and opt instead to spend their time and money elsewhere? The question weighs heavy on the minds of many Icelanders, no doubt.

The barrage of tourists in Iceland has stolen away some of the natural splendor and old-world culture that helped put the Nordic island on the map, and like it or not, us authentic outdoor lovers are often as guilty as the bogan tourists we all like to lay blame on. We are the straws on the camel’s back. But what can we as individuals do about it?

For starters, we can move Iceland a bit down on our bucket lists. Iceland is a gem. It’s truly unlike any place on earth, but perhaps what the besieged island nation really needs right now is some alone time to work out its issues for itself. Sure, the economy may suffer as a result, but as long as the withdrawal is subtle and not all at once, it should have anything but a dramatic impact.

So, get your fix of foggy, green scenery from your favorite Instagrammers, catch a view of the Northern Lights from Alaska or Lapland, and let Iceland cool down for a while. If not for the cliff hanging economy, stay away for the sake of the sacred elf habitats.

famous ring road
  1. Colors of the sunset along the famous ring road near the East Fjords.
Godafoss waterfall
  1. A misty morning and a bird’s eye view at Godafoss waterfall.
southern Icelandic coast
  1. Unending coastline and a sea of black sand along the southern Icelandic coast.