Is 101 sleepwalking towards xenophobia?
Laugavegur, running as it does directly through the heart of 101 Reykjavík, becomes a very cosmopolitan street in summertime. Temporarily pedestrianised, it transforms into a lively boulevard filled with music, street food, public art, craft stalls, picnic tables, sun-loungers, and rails of lopapeysur (or raincoats and scarves, just in case). An international throng of happy campers appear out of nowhere. It can be plain bewildering just how busy the street is, compared to the rest of the year.
It makes for great people-watching. Within a few steps of each other, one can see an ancient Japanese lady gamely clambering onto one of the pedestrian-zone-sign fake bikes for a photo-op; dreamy-eyed, hand-holding Nordic couples floating by with peaced-out smiles on their faces; well-to-do Germans in matching specially-bought and wildly unnecessary extreme weather gear. Chinese tour parties seem increasingly common, moving as a unit, sniping off predetermined 101 highlights. Slow-moving hippie oldsters meander through the city with their practical sandals and knapsacks, alongside hard-to-ignore baseball-capped American buddies who talk at carefree volume about their new cars, old loans, future mortgages, wives and kids and favourite beer brands. Awkward teenagers mope along behind parents of all nationalities, not quite old or confident enough to be here alone; hipster tourists with shades, tote bags and MacBooks haunt the coffee shops, indistinguishable from the locals but for their unfamiliar faces. As the afternoon turns to evening, the hen-night and bachelor party crews arrive, along with raucous pairs and packs of Frenchmen, Englishmen and Spaniards hitting the 101 bar circuit early.
More and more of the world comes to Reykjavík every summer, and with them comes an enjoyable carnival atmosphere. But over the last years, the tourists have gone from being a trickle to a torrent, becoming a dominant, impossible-to-ignore presence. Almost without exception, change breeds discontent, with an increasing number of locals voicing feelings of frustration in conversation or on social media. Whereas Londoners have known for years to avoid Oxford Street at all costs during the summer months, lest they become trapped in a traffic jam of frustratingly slow-moving, photo-snapping visitors, little old Reykjavík is new to this game. As such, some are struggling to deal with the change, and increasingly ragging on incomers, spitting out the word “tourist” with resignation or even contempt.
Tourists are ruining everything
To be fair, there are a variety of legitimate grievances to choose from. Iceland, and especially downtown Reykjavík, is in the midst of an unprecedented and seemingly unmanaged tourism gold rush, with destructive consequences. Landlords are converting downtown apartments from homes into tourist flats (there are currently 1,000 Airbnb listings for Reykjavík alone), muscling locals out of coveted city-centre properties and making house-hunting a frustrating and borderline traumatic experience. Local cultural landmarks such as Nasa and the Smiðjustígur concert venue that once housed Grand Rokk and Faktorý have closed, to be redeveloped into hotels by Icelandic businessmen eager to accommodate demand. The best bars are crowded, the top restaurants are regularly fully booked, and for those sensitive about privacy it’s hard to step out of the house without being the background of a holiday snap.
And, inevitably, there are oddballs and wildcards in the crowd, reported with a kind of rubber-necking amusement by local media, The Reykjavík Grapevine included. From the “glacial picnickers,” to the Prime Minister’s-lawn streaker who had his clothes nicked, to the disoriented old dude who took a dump in the street for some reason—all become anecdotes that inadvertently feed a subtle swing towards the perception that “tourists are stupid.”
Tangle all of the above together, and it’s plain to see why Reykjavík’s traditional attentive curiosity towards newcomers might be eroding somewhat. Whereas just a few years ago, an overheard foreign accent might attract bar conversations, today visitors are ten-a-penny, and often greeted with reflexive disinterest. At the more fierce end of the spectrum, there have been Facebook statuses, tweets and shared anecdotes from locals that seem to move past discontent and towards a less wholesome, generalised brand of xenophobia—blaming things like bike theft, burglary and property damage on immigrants and tourists, on evidence slim enough to suggest prejudice.
Not so fast!
It’s important to note that bad behaviour is the exception rather than the rule. For every thoughtless off-the-path footprint at a hot spring, there are thousands of people who respectfully stayed on track. For every inexplicable street-pooper, there are hundreds of thousands of people who elected to use the bathroom. And for every over-entitled asshole who tried to grope or bother a pretty girl or guy in a bar, there’s the less talked-about majority with a healthy interest in getting to know the locals. Tourism brings with it a flow of fresh faces, new ideas, different backgrounds and alternative perspectives, all of them adding valuable variety to the cultural life of the capital.
And after all, it isn’t the tourists who are knocking down music venues. Icelandic business owners are at the back of the queue when it comes to complaining about the boom, and it’s evident to anyone who plays music, works in a bar, mans the desk at a hotel or waits tables at a restaurant that tourism brings a much needed shot in the arm to local businesses and their employees. And with an increased demand for activities such as street performance, weeknight DJs and live music, the tourism boom is enabling Reykjavík’s young creative class to sustain themselves in a way that was much more difficult before.
Tourists themselves are, on an individual level, largely blameless for the issues that this surge of Icelandophilia has brought. Whilst occasionally annoying if you’re in a rush, most of them are just wide-eyed explorers and holiday-makers with no desire to bother anyone. But like Lake Mývatn, Reykjavík’s accepting and carefree social ecosystem is delicate—one only hopes it’ll weather the changes better than the marimo.
John Rogers is a writer, artist and music person who has spent inordinate amounts of time in Reykjavík since 2007. His first book, ‘Real Life,’ came out via Habitat in January 2014.