Tourism was the unexpected saviour of the Icelandic economy after the financial crisis of 2008, and since then social media platforms like Instagram have facilitated a huge boom in visitors. Fourteen years later, with tourist numbers expected to return to pre-pandemic figures rapidly and infrastructure struggling to keep up with demand, is it finally time to face up to our relationship with tourism in the age of social media?
It’s an image you’ve seen before: the dark basalt columns, lined up in almost unnatural uniformity, shaded soft grey and black from passing rain squalls. A person is perched on top, their bright orange jacket contrasting with the monochrome background. Around them; nothing. They are alone, a sole vivid spark in the vast expanse of Icelandic nature.
Except, of course, they’re not. The image is captured—sometimes repeatedly, until the exact correct angle is achieved—and then immediately the subject’s place is filled by another person, and another almost identical photo is taken. And so it goes on. In fact, the beach is crowded. People queue, jostling each other for a spot to pose on the stones. Behind them others take selfies, Facetime their families and send up drones, dodging the encroaching waves that continually batter the shoreline.
This is the reality of travel in the era of social media. Reynisfjara, the site of these iconic rock columns—which feature heavily on Instagram’s #Iceland feed—has already received more than 100,000 visitors this year, according to statistics collected by Visit Iceland. What’s more, it’s also the location of a number of recent tragedies; a man in his 80’s was killed after being caught by a so-called ‘sneaker wave’ just last month. In total there have been five deaths—as well as numerous near misses—at Reynisfjara in the past seven years. All of them were tourists.
Tourism has changed substantially since the turn of the century, and this is in no small part due to our burgeoning relationship with—and increasing reliance on—social media platforms such as Instagram. While individuals might previously have engaged the help of a specialist travel agent to assist them in planning and booking their holidays, nowadays more and more of us are turning to the photo and video sharing app to get inspiration and knowledge about our intended destinations.
However, it turns out that despite the internet generation’s aversion to in-person commercial interactions (see also: the rise of supermarket self-checkouts and online clothes shopping), when it comes to travel we are still looking for figures to guide and inform us. These modern-day equivalents to travel agents are social media ‘influencers’, individuals who craft curated feeds and attract thousands, sometimes millions of followers. Their power to shape and change the way that people travel cannot be downplayed, especially in a small country like Iceland where changes to trends and norms can be felt very quickly.
Kyana Sue Powers admits she was not an avid Instagram user before she started planning her first trip to Iceland.
“Before coming here I lived under a social media rock,” she explains, laughing. “I didn’t know that everybody had Instagram, I just followed family and friends.”
Despite not considering herself a particularly engaged Instagram user, Kyana felt it was an obvious choice when it came to planning her first visit to Iceland. “I went to Instagram to research because that’s just where Millenials and younger people go these days to get inspired for their next trip, or to know where to go once they arrive at their destination,” she says. “I basically started following any account that had to do with Iceland, and that’s when I was opened up to this world of travel influencers.”
Finding a voice
By the time Kyana arrived in Iceland she was hooked—both on social media and her love for the country. After spending a week travelling the Ring Road, she vowed she would return to make Iceland her home. For her, building a social media presence was a natural progression in her journey to creating a new life in Iceland.
“Because of everyone I was following on Instagram, I didn’t see people with normal jobs, like doctors and construction workers,” she says. “I only saw people travelling and taking pictures and being photographers. So of course I thought, well I need to go and do that too.”
After spending months researching photography and social media marketing skills, Kyana saw her following on Instagram steadily start to grow. But it wasn’t until the launch of ‘reels’—short format video clips, often with music, that is Instagram’s answer to TikTok or Vine (RIP)—that she really found her particular niche. She began making videos on the theme of “my daily life in Iceland”, many of which have been watched over a million times.
“I really found my own voice through social media,” Kyana confides. What’s more, it’s a voice that clearly resonates with her audience. Kyana has heard from many tourists that her content is responsible for encouraging them to plan a trip to Iceland. Today she has 32.4K followers on Instagram, and almost 50k on TikTok.
The cult of authenticity
At its core, tourism is an incredibly strange phenomenon. Every year, millions of people leave their comfortable homes for other spaces and realities. Tourism is experience produced on an industrial scale. It fuels economies, builds cities, and shapes how all of us—whether resident or visitor—live our lives.
But the concept of tourism has evolved and shifted in the context of Instagram, and the digital age more broadly. In this time of online-enlightenment, tourism has become embroiled in the ugliest internet debate of them all: the inescapable cult of authenticity. The impassioned hunt for experiences which can be considered ‘authentic’ is one of the most significant drivers of postmodern tourism, and it’s an arena in which countries like Iceland, which would have once been considered undesirable as holiday destinations, have excelled. Even Syria—still battered and burying its war dead—has been met with a marked increase in requests for tourist visas in recent years.
Degree of influence
Jewells Chambers, who has a popular Youtube channel, podcast, and various other media platforms under the umbrella name “All Things Iceland,” recognises that the idea of authenticity can sometimes feel like a trap.
“There’s this whole “Instagram vs Reality trend,” she says. “Up until the past couple of years, I don’t think people would have really been into it. But recently it’s been much more, ‘give me the raw’—along with ‘I want it to look really beautiful.”
Jewells, who like Kyana is originally from the US, moved to the country to live with her Icelandic partner in the mid 2010s. She has a background in digital marketing and has worked with multiple companies alongside producing her own content, but says that the perception other people have of her work is not always kind.
“There is a huge misconception of what [influencer] means,” Jewells explains. “A lot of people think of Kim Kardashian—a huge figure in terms of pop culture. But they also think of selling or pushing things that you might not ever have had experience with, or that you don’t really believe in, or that it’s all just for the money.”
Jewells is quick to contradict that opinion: “For me one of the most important parts of my sharing is that it comes from an authentic place, and that I have experience of something, whether that’s an activity or a particular circumstance,” she clarifies. “Everyone has influence to a degree, whether it’s to a lot of people or just within your immediate circle. I think of it as, you trust that person and their advice or recommendations—and so I take it very seriously.”
The tourist boom
Before the early 2010s, Iceland did not know large-scale international tourism. But a perfect storm of factors conspired to change the situation—and rapidly. Firstly, Iceland suffered hugely in the financial crisis of 2008. While on paper that might not seem like an ideal incubator for tourism, the reality is that prior to the crash, Iceland was not a feasible holiday destination for most people because being here was just too damn expensive.
The second reason was environmental, and probably only slightly less anticipated than the recession: Eyjafjallajökull. The volcano erupted in 2010, throwing huge amounts of ash into the sky and grounding air traffic across most of the globe. Suddenly, tiny Iceland was on every news station on the planet, simultaneously. Sure, the coverage was not overwhelmingly positive—cue the video of a drunk Scottish guy bellowing “AH HATE ICELAND,” behind a frustrated news anchor’s back—but it put the country in everyone’s minds.
The post-tourism pull of the hard-to-reach, unusual place that nobody else was going to was the final piece of the puzzle that chimed with a new breed of social-media savvy traveller. In 2009, 494,000 visitors came to Iceland. In 2019, that figure was over two million.
Along with this marked increase in visitor numbers has come a dramatic change in the landscape of Iceland—both environmentally and culturally. For instance, the post-modern tourist does not desire to stay in traditional hostels or hotels as their parents did. Instead, they have turned to companies like Airbnb, who offer the opportunity to stay smack dab in the middle of downtown Reykjavík, in apartments that are desired for both their simulacra of ‘authenticity’, as well as their aesthetic currency for sharing online. The fact that Iceland is currently experiencing its worst rental shortage of all time does not feel unrelated.
It’s a phenomenon that American sociologist George Rizter refers to as “McDisneyization”—the idea that increasingly, cities and spaces are being rationalised for consumption by the visiting tourist, often at the expense of those who actually live there. Kyana recognises the issue in some of her audience, who come to Iceland expecting to be swept away in a fairytale experience.
“I think the biggest ‘Instagram vs reality’ experiences people have when they come here is the amount of people,” she says. “Because of course, you were inspired by a small person standing in front of a beautiful waterfall, and you thought, oh my gosh that’s amazing. But then when you actually come here, you might be on a tour or it might be peak time, and there will be hundreds of people standing in front of Skógafoss.”
Kyana herself now frequently travels Iceland during the night in summer time, in order to get the photographs her followers expect, devoid of crowds. “It’s my way of doing my job more effectively,” she says, matter-of-factly.
“This could kill you”
What Kyana sees as a real concern, however, is the way that social media may be encouraging people to interact with Icelandic nature in ways that risk harm to individuals—or the landscape itself.
“We’re all the same: we go somewhere new and think, oh I have to take that photo, we’re never coming back, let’s just do it,” she says, with empathy. “But in some cases in Iceland you could really regret doing it.”
Kyana continues: “For example, the volcano: I know we were lucky in that there were no deaths or major injuries, but there were a lot of people who messaged me saying they were going to go up, even if there was a big storm.”
Jewells shares similar worries regarding safety at Fagradalsfjall: “People were walking on the lava like it was fine,” she says, incredulously. “But it’s like no, this could kill you!”
Jewells also believes, however, that it is the responsibility of her and others in her industry to set a standard of behaviour that others can follow: “If you’re an influencer, and you’re doing something reckless, there’s a good chance that people will copy you and try and get that same picture.”
“I’m not saying it’s one person’s fault,” she adds. “But let’s not try and encourage behaviour that could have people jumping off a cliff, or standing on the moss.”
The Bieber effect
Perhaps the most famous moss-wrecker of them all is pop star Justin Bieber. In 2015, Bieber filmed the music video for his song “I’ll Show You” in Iceland, which included scenes of him running on protected moss in the Fjaðrárgljúfur gorge of South Iceland, as well as swimming in Jökulsárlón—aka the ‘diamond lagoon’—which can be incredibly dangerous.
Since then, footfall in Fjaðrárgljúfur—which was previously relatively unknown to tourists—has increased substantially, and park rangers have reported damage to the moss, which can take many years to grow back.
Kyana feels frustrated that the Icelandic government seem to acknowledge the damage that can be caused by one influencer’s actions, without engaging with those who want to help protect Iceland’s nature, as well as the safety of those who want to visit it responsibly:
“With this black beach situation, people are just walking past the signs,” she says, regarding the recent deaths at Reynisfjara. “I don’t know if that’s to do with where they’re located, or if they’re not big enough. But what I do know is that changing these things can only do so much, because travellers relate best to other people.”
She goes on: “There are tonnes of travel influencers in the country who inspire people to come here, and I think we’re the ones who need to share this message. I don’t know why the Minister or the Tourism Board isn’t coming to us to help get across this huge safety message.”
Jewells echoes Kyana’s sentiments, saying that there is a big interest from her audience for content regarding how to be a responsible tourist.
“More and more people want to be seen as conscious tourists,” she says. “I try to cater to that, educating people on different aspects. Maybe it’s just my community, but I feel like people really appreciate that.”
While the government so far has not taken the initiative to recruit influencers for major safety campaigns, both Jewells and Kyana, as well as other influencers, have taken it upon themselves to inform and educate their followers, with content such as “8 Mistakes Tourists Make” (Kyana) and “7 Ways Iceland Can Kill You” (Jewells).
However, one aspect where Jewells and Kyana feel differently is on the subject of geotagging locations—the method by which those sharing content on social media can pinpoint the exact spot where it was produced.
“Sometimes people share pictures but don’t share where the location is,” Jewells says. “I get that you want to make travel inspo, and there are some places where perhaps you shouldn’t share the location because it’s dangerous for people to go there, or they could cause damage. But in my opinion I love when people share information about a place, what you should and shouldn’t do—interesting places to go, but also what to watch out for.”
Despite the challenges that can be present in her line of work, Kyana is vocal about how much she loves her job.
“It’s given me a whole life in Iceland, which is incredible,” she says, gratefully. Kyana was recently given a visa to remain in Iceland, after an extremely tumultuous period where she was under threat of deportation after having her work visa declined. Unsurprisingly, Kyana turned to her social media accounts to raise support for her cause, which seemed to be a major contributor to the reversal of the Department of Work and Pensions’ decision.
However, it was not without controversy—many criticisms were levelled at Kyana, including that her campaign lacked self-awareness and failed to acknowledge her privilege as a middle-class American, compared to the many others who face deportation from Iceland, often to places with deplorable or life-threatening conditions.
But despite this experience, Kyana is still happy to be here, and proud to be doing what she does. “It’s pretty awesome that being a content creator, you get to work with other people who are doing the same thing,” she remarks. “And at the end of the day, none of us know what we’re doing—it’s a brand new industry!” She laughs, and adds: “We’re paving the way for people in the future and just trying to do our best. It’s great to be able to have conversations about it with other creators, and I feel like there’s a really good community here in Iceland.”
“Where are these people going to stay?”
Regardless of what else that potential future holds, what is clear is that tourism and social media are both here to stay, and it is time to have an honest conversation about what that means in Iceland. In this experience economy, people are willing to spend great swathes of their income to immerse themselves in an imagined version of authentic Icelandic life. That we, as a country, benefit hugely from this is without doubt. Tourism is Iceland’s biggest industry, after all, and there is barely anyone living here who doesn’t gain some level of income or benefit from the tourism industry.
But Iceland is not a theme park. It is a home to 370,000 people, as well as a natural environment that is delicate and sensitive to change. At the height of the summer, walking down Laugavegur can feel like being an extra in someone else’s fantasy of Iceland—a fantasy that is often sold to people through social media.
There are big challenges to tackle. Every year, the Icelandic government pumps millions of krónur into promoting tourism in Iceland, with the apparent goal of attracting more and more visitors. Parallel to that, influencers like Kyana and Jewells also continue to build their brands, selling, essentially, a story about Iceland—a dream we are encouraged to follow. Meanwhile, hospitals, roads, campsites and car parks are all groaning at the seams. With so much at stake, can tourism really just continue to increase, unfettered?
“I don’t see social media going anywhere,” Kyana states. “But there has to be a conversation about the capacity of what Iceland can handle, because it seems impossible. The hotels are booked, there aren’t enough cars. Where are these people going to stay?”
14 years ago, when Iceland’s financial future hung in the balance, tourism came in to save it. Now, post-pandemic, and with inflation at its highest since 2009, the situation once again feels like it’s balancing on a knife’s edge. But the world is undeniably different now, and the way we travel must reflect that. Jewells, Kyana and their peers present a hopeful approach. Their focus on fostering personal connection and encouraging responsible, sensitive tourism, might just indicate the way forward. “There’s this moral compass that’s developing on the internet,” Jewells says.
Tourism is no longer the domain of traditional gatekeepers like travel agents or airline companies—it belongs to the people who come here. It has been ostensibly democratised, but the grassroots movement has in itself grown to become commercial. Iceland will never be without tourism again, but our complex, codependent relationship with it is also firmly here to stay.
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