For the first time in history the wonders of Iceland are on global display. Tourism has taken top spot for growth and in overall contribution to the economy, and shows no signs of slowing. While tourism has alleviated enormous economic pressure following the economic crash, many are having flashbacks to when it seemed like nothing could stop Icelandic finance. Risks to tourism growth are real, and meanwhile risks to nature, culture, visitor and host alike are rising. Unchecked tourism may just destroy the Iceland we’ve all come to love.
Boons, booms, and bubbles
Nobody doubts that booming tourism has done wonders for Iceland’s economy. As many more people will visit Iceland in 2016 than in 2015, Islandsbanki estimates, as live there, bringing the total to 1.6 million. Visitors and investors have pumped in much-needed foreign capital, helping to balance the budget and resurrect construction. Tourism has almost single handedly dispatched joblessness. According to Islandbanki, about 45% of the jobs created from 2010 to 2015 connect to foreigners seeking the Iceland experience.
A boom is not necessarily a bubble. A bubble means overvaluation. While we may at times worry about a fad effect or look sideways at folks’ fascination with nature, culture and novelty, on the whole, we accept that Iceland is finally being accorded its due. Above all, everyone loves the nature. Foreigners have headed to Iceland for generations for its dramatic difference. Where else can you behold aurora borealis from a hot-spring tub in a lava field next to a volcano after whale watching and eating oddities like sheep-dung-smoked sheep? Then of course there are the sagas, vikings, the ancient language and promise of a healthier and saner society. All of these contribute to Iceland’s appeal.
Iceland is on top as more people break out of poverty and isolationism and more retire. Yet while tourism increased 4% worldwide in 2015, it jumped 30% in Iceland, so there’s clearly more to the story. There are a few reasons for the dramatic rise in tourism but volcanoes take the cake. As one economist said, “Eyjafjallajökull was the biggest free advertisement in history.” Icelandair deserves a lot of credit, for hooking us with stopovers. Game of Thrones may have spread the word. But generally, operators and stakeholders have cannily built and marketed a suite of wonder tours that has brought people from all around the world. For the first time ever, Iceland is for everyone.
What goes up
Nonetheless, it’s insane to count on tourist traffic to increase uninterrupted ad infinitum. Recent experience—if not all of economic history or physics—has taught us that what goes up must come down. We know about cycles, even if we’ve yet to learn proper fear of them.
Mother Earth giveth, and also taketh away. Any number of volcanoes or an earthquake could obliterate demand. One must also wonder when visitors will notice the weather.
Humans may also mess it all up. A spate of high-profile tourist deaths or a whaling scandal could cause doubt which could cause growth to falter. Demand may cool if travelers decide that Iceland has shed its secret status, when crowds and crowd control at Þingvellir and Seljalandsfoss approach theme-park proportions (they’re getting there). Demand may wane as people visit Iceland and are unlikely to return as they might to Southern Spain or Jamaica. More likely, tourists will drop out if the krona appreciates meaningfully, and prices return to the prohibitive pre-crisis levels. Speaking of crises, another global recession could throw a wet blanket over international travel. Financial pressures, like tectonic ones, tend to release periodically and somewhat unpredictably.
Slow and steady wins the race
If some catastrophe puts the brakes on growth, it could be a blessing in disguise, because Iceland is a bit overrun and underprepared. There is no down season anymore. Car renters and hostel workers testified that they were 80% booked…in February. Much of the ongoing hotel construction is sorely needed. Airbnb cannot fill the gap. This winter, hosts received bookings for fall. Would-be summer travelers had better think at least a year ahead. Another erstwhile host said Airbnb tried to lure him back into the market with the tantalizing news that all other hosts in his area, Hafnarfjörður, were booked, as if to say “You sure you don’t want to host? Really?” It was January.
Super sizing tourism is affecting other areas of Iceland, notably as the economic, the transactional, dominates ever more space, interaction, and culture. Everything is for sale now, and everyone is selling. Downtown’s fabric is reshuffling for profit potential. You can’t walk a block on Laugavegur without seeing viking this or puffin that, high-end boutiques, and pricey restaurants, construction cranes and útsala signs. If you can’t pay the rising rent, you’re history.
Outside of urban centers, we price-tag and peddle nature. This creates an unprecedented need and incentive to preserve Iceland’s nature, but preservation requires strict policing. Ropes, signs, stairs, boardwalks, and education have forestalled mass despoiling, but many visitors ignore warnings, sometimes at their mortal peril, and treat the land like a rental car—ride hard and put away wet. Visitors can’t all know or grasp the risks, to moss for example, or don’t care about preservation as much as snagging a great shot. Meanwhile, the signs and still-spotty infrastructure mar once pristine landscapes that have long formed the heart of common purpose and community in Iceland.
Iceland for everyone means things are changing fast. Some will say, so what? We must adapt, and if we must adapt to urban parks demolished, corner bars made boutiques, helicopter crowds and banisters at waterfalls, well, at least we’re getting paid. While it’s tough to take issue with cashing in on the bonanza, we can take issue with those who cave to the lie of inevitability, and say to hell with it. The market doesn’t care much for memory, nostalgia, sentimentality, history. If we do, we have to make it care.
Mass tourism throws up walls, physical walls of huge hotels between us and the view, and walls between people. It’s not inevitable, for example, to see and treat visitors as tourists. The word “tourist” denatures like the word “veal” but in the opposite direction. No, that’s not a veal, that’s a baby cow you’re devouring. And no those are not tourists, those are people, with shared values, that we value as people, not fat wallets. Creeping commercialism threatens our propensity to care, share, serve, preserve, and act together without the coordinating vector of profit motive.
To be fair, it’s hard when you’re selling and they’re buying; when they look and act different; trawl the sidewalk, snap photos of regular people’s seemingly regular parlors, can’t pronounce any word in your language, including your name; when they spawn traffic jams; when you have to take a number to show your grandkid Gullfoss; when they shit on your land, refuse to take advice, ignore warning signs, defy common sense, have to be rescued, and refuse at all costs to be shamed.
Visitors are as vulnerable as a flock of lambs that destroy as wantonly as a herd of elephants.
Stewards of a common humanity
Yet there’s nothing like an untimely death to restore our sense of common humanity. Recent tragedies on glaciers, at Reynisfjara, on the roads, and innumerable close calls remind us of the stakes and the bonds. While more tourists mean numerically more accidental death, injury, rescues, and the like, each tragedy is as an isolated case avoidable. To a death, host and visitor must meet in mind and settle on proper protocol for respectable and safe conduct. Both sides must come to the table. The government has taken steps and will take more. Initiatives like safetravel.is make a world of difference. But those with the biggest sway are regular people that encounter visitors in work or society and show the other side, teach the hard lessons, share the common experience.
If catastrophe diverts visitors, it will be hard to keep the economy upright. If luck continues to favor Iceland, and visitors arrive in ever greater numbers, it may be harder still for Icelanders to retain the solidarity and civility of hosts and stewards of a beautiful and dangerous land in a world of blurring differences.
Bradley Turner is a freelance journalist and former economics writer for Moody’s Analytics.
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