Iceland’s massive popularity with tourists has a gross downside

Droves of visitors descend upon Iceland’s Gullfoss waterfall during peak tourist season.
Droves of visitors descend upon Iceland’s Gullfoss waterfall during peak tourist season.
Image: AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett
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Iceland is having a moment. The tiny North Atlantic island of 330,000 residents will have welcomed more than one million tourists in a single year by the end of 2015. Visitors from around the world are flocking to the country to hike its isolated highlands, book tours to Europe’s largest manmade ice cave in Langjökull glacier, ride horses along placid fjords, bask in the summer midnight sun, and catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights during winter months.

There’s just one problem: the tourists so eager to take in Iceland’s beautiful landscapes are putting its nature and resources—not to mention their own safety—at risk.

Tourism is currently Iceland’s biggest moneymaker, raking in roughly 1 million ISK ($7,565) per resident, according to the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF). But that money comes at a price. SAF has warned that the country needs to make a number of improvements at the more popular Icelandic tourist sites before peak tourism season hits next summer.

Sites badly in need of upgrades to public toilets, parking areas and signage include Gullfoss, a thundering waterfall; Þingvellir National Park; and Geysir, the famous geothermal hot spot. These spots, once sparsely visited, are now crowded with hordes of tour buses and rental cars. Tourists tend to hop over roped-off land, trample protected areas, strew trash throughout the wilderness, vandalize landmarks—and even relieve themselves outdoors.

A lack of public toilets around the country led to a spate of alarming headlines in local media this year, from “Lack of Toilets Leads to Pooping on Famous Graves” [in Þingvellir National Park and “Tourists Defecate in Town Center.” Meanwhile, the summer of 2015 saw a popular hot spring, Hrunalaug, sustain so much damage from tourists that landowners considered bulldozing it.

Off-road driving, which is forbidden in Iceland, is a growing problem. This past September, foreign tourists traveling in two 4x4s were caught driving in circles off the road six miles from Landmannalaugar, one of the country’s most beloved natural sites.

Iceland’s international airport is also overwhelmed by the onslaught of tourists and the increase in the number of airlines that fly into the country. Some travelers even bunk in the airport to save money on hotels. During the summer months, travelers with sleeping bags and tents set up camp in the terminal, some even cooking food.

Many tour guides have pleaded for Iceland to introduce better infrastructure and more facilities. “I don’t like what’s happening in Iceland,” a tour guide who declined to be named tells Quartz. “Tourism is so important for us for money, and we love showing guests the country, but the damage [to the land] is so bad. We have many tourists running wild and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

In order to manage Iceland’s newfound popularity, some suggest the country may need to either cap the number of tourists allowed into its most popular destinations or else find a way to pay for better infrastructure and upkeep.

Indeed, Iceland’s parliament discussed instating a Nature Pass that would charge people 1,500 ISK ($11 USD) to gain access to natural sites that have historically been free to visit. But the proposal met with controversy, since European Union rules would have required residents as well as tourists to pay the fee. The proposal ultimately failed to go forward.

Some tourism professionals are instead suggesting a cap on the number of tourists who can visit Iceland each year.

“Iceland needs to focus on low volume tourism and discerning travelers willing to pay a realistic price to enjoy this remarkable island,” Clive Stacey, managing director and co-founder of travel agency Discover the World, tells Quartz. Iceland could compensate for loss of tourist dollars by focusing on attracting tourists willing to spend more money, he suggested, rather than the budget travelers lured by low airfares.

Meanwhile, in order to spread out tourists throughout the country, Iceland plans to introduce direct international plane routes to Egilsstaðir in the east—traditionally a low-volume destination. There is also talk of introducing more international flights to Akureyri in the north.

Search and rescue, round the clock

Perhaps the most serious issue with increased tourism in Iceland has been the subsequent spike in search and rescue operations. This has put enormous pressure on the Iceland Association for Search and Rescue (ICESAR), a volunteer-run organization funded through donations rather than government aid. The group has seen a dramatic increase in tourists asking for assistance in the last three to five years.

“Last summer we assisted around 4,000 tourists in that time in July and August,” a substantial increase from five years ago, says Jónas Guðmundsson, project manager at ICESAR. “And that’s all kind of assistance, from accidents and getting lost to getting stuck in a river or mud. There is hardly a day without a call out somewhere in Iceland.”

Part of the problem is that Iceland needs to invest in roads, signs and education to avoid accidents, Guðmundsson says. Many tourists try to access roads that are closed because of bad weather. Their compact rental cars have no chance against snow, wind, and ice. But better signs and outreach could help tourists avoid getting into trouble.

“Our infrastructure is not ready for all those tourists,” Guðmundsson says.

Most Icelanders are happy to welcome guests from abroad. The issue is simply figuring out how to accommodate them while preserving their safety and that of the landscape.

“We are figuring out a way to keep the tourism industry growing, but to do it in a way that makes sense,” said the unnamed tour guide. “Nobody wants to see this beautiful island ruined. We’re working on it.”