Published September 4, 2014
When I first experienced Iceland some fifteen years ago, it was an aspirational destination, high on many holiday bucket lists. Of course, it still is, but Iceland has become more affordable since then, and is thus accessible to almost anyone. This increased accessibility has resulted in a constantly growing number of tourists, far beyond what’s sustainable or safe for Iceland’s unique and fragile infrastructure and eco-system.
For example, at landmarks Gullfoss and Geysir, on “cruise ship days,” one has to queue by the fence to catch a glimpse of the waterfall—as if it were a ride at Disneyland—diminishing the very experience that people have come for. It is furthermore a well known fact that the large cruise groups responsible bring very little business to local service providers—most of them eat onboard the ships, and buy any tours through agencies that squeeze local operators by offering cheaper deals, pocketing the difference.
“Thousands of crappers”
Iceland is also experiencing an influx of cut-price DIY tourists; backpackers and cyclists. Whilst this might seem like an environmentally friendly way to travel on the surface, we must remember that those travellers can also be litterbugs—after all, who wants to carry waste to the next trashcan when they can just leave it under a rock? Those tourists’ bodily functions also need to be catered for, however, they can’t hold on while they walk or cycle to the next toilet, so the land often acts as waste receptacle. Sure, Mother Nature can care for a few backpacking Icelanders— but thousands of crappers at popular spots she cannot. And on this subject, the sewer systems in our towns and our city: were they built to take a threefold increase in waste release? Is the government investing in—or at least saving up for—ways to counter the inevitable?
Even when the modern tourist does get the chance to stop by a service provider, does he use it? NO! I have witnessed many an example of what I call the destruction of our country. For example, at Gullfoss, a foreign bus pulled up by the visitor centre, and while the group went to enjoy the sights, a guide stayed behind and laid out lunchboxes onto the picnic tables (over half of that food did not come from Icelandic stores). He seemed to think it was his right to use someone’s facilities without paying a thing. Yet he makes money from the sale of this holiday, while not even paying the tax to Iceland. What did Iceland get from that particular group? Rubbish, blown away, that they didn’t even bother chasing after.
And are the ferry ports properly controlled when they arrive; are their vehicles vetted? I guess not, because far too many coaches and 4x4s come carrying their own groceries, with full gas tanks and extra fuel in the boot. All tax-free.
It’s fine time
To counter this, I suggest that the government establish a vetting staff, trained to inspect every vehicle that enters the country. Through the added revenue, that team would fund itself and provide job opportunities. Cars found laden with food or excess fuel would pay duty on it, or face a heavy fine.
Also, any group of cars with tour stickers, or registered under a tour company name, should be made to prominently display their Icelandic tour operator licence. I’d bet many of those currently profiting off Iceland do not have one; they should be made to pay the proper licence fee, and probably suffer a fine, too. Didn’t know about it? Tough. You knew enough about Iceland to make money out of it—so go find out the rules of operation! No doubt, when the once pristine country they’re exploiting has been devastated and reduced to a theme park, they’ll move on to the next one, leaving nowt but rubbish behind.
Iceland cannot sustain the increase in tourism it has experienced of late. We need to control the flow, to ensure that it lasts. At the current rate, we will be exhausted by 2018—as a result, fewer will come. We need to find ways to keep the number hovering around the 700,000 mark, which is both manageable and sustainable. Iceland must become what it once was: the country to aspire to visit when you can afford it, not just another cut-price package holiday.
One way to control the numbers would be to tax beds and rooms. If there were no beds, the extra tourists would find it difficult to come here. Beds should be registered, and unregistered providers should be fined and then licensed: once again, a self-funding operation. Also, we should issue licences for bonafide tour operators to access the fragile countryside, with whooping big fines for breaking the rules. The income stream is there for the government’s taking—it just needs a small, self-funding team to collect it.
The current transformation of residential buildings into rental apartments is going to make many cry. And how will they fill the spaces during the off-season and after the inevitable downturn? By cutting prices, of course. Little by little, Iceland becomes a cut-price, low-service tourist dumping ground.
My plea to the government and the Icelandic tourist business community is this: listen to other opinions, because yours may not be based on the right knowledge and ground-level experience. I’m sorry if this suggestion offends the people in question, and I hope it’s taken in the spirit it was meant—one of preserving our wonderful country and our tourist economy in a sustainable and mindful fashion.
Iceland cannot afford the destructive learning curve it is currently on—the land is too fragile. The transition we are currently in the midst of needs to be carefully managed, but at the moment it feels like there’s nobody at the wheel.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ian R. Sykes, BA FHCIMA, is a retired Tourism and Hospitality Lecturer, with 47 years of industry experience. He and his wife of 42 years, Frances, moved to Iceland four years ago, after having been constant visitors for over a decade. The two have godchildren in Iceland, and a daughter and two grandchildren in England. Both have been in the hospitality and tourism business all their lives (they even met at hospitality college!).
Ian used to work giving lectures in hospitality and tourism, and he has written training booklets on the subject. He was involved at the onset of the Visit Scotland “Welcome…,” initiative, training people how to sell the same services to different tourist groups. Ian was also the only single-person training business to hold a licence to train Security Staff and Night Club Stewards (bouncers to you and me).
As a retirement package, Ian learned to drive commercial heavy trucks and buses, and undertook the World Host trainer programme. He now works as a freelance driver. Meanwhile, Frances also passed her test to drive minibuses commercially, and now runs a small, registered and VAT registered guesthouse that is consistently in TripAdvisor’s top five rankings.