Some of you may have noticed that Grapevine’s been reporting a lot of news about the misadventures of tourism. I say tourism, rather than tourists, because the distinction is both very important but often misunderstood. The latter represents a very large group of people who are mostly great to and for the country; the former represents an industry that is following an unfortunately familiar trend, unless we learn some lessons from the past.
You see, we’ve been down this road before. About ten years ago, Iceland put all of its eggs in the basket of high finance. We talked about “outvasion Vikings” (still a bonehead term if there ever was one), unemployment was at 2%, the króna was strong, and our president enjoyed visiting other countries to brag about how our Proud Nordic Viking Spirit was the reason we were just so damned good at capitalism. Similarly, the media in Iceland pretty much parroted this attitude, without examination or criticism. Any outside voices of doubt – like say, Standard & Poors – were scoffed at and told “maybe u shud hustle as hard as u h8 lol”.
At Grapevine, any time I reported a story that was even remotely critical of Iceland’s financial dealings, people spared no words in their scorn and ridicule. I have personally been told, on many occasions, that I hated Iceland, been asked why I hated Iceland, and had it suggested that if I hated Iceland so much maybe I should move back to the US. Not that I was alone – any journalist or media outlet who questioned the stability and sustainability of our success was subject to the same treatment. Things are going so well, we were told, why do you have to be so negative?
Well, we all know how that went. Even the Special Investigation Commission report on the causes of the Icelandic economic collapse cited, amongst many other factors, a lack of critical investigative journalism which could have put pressure on our bankers or at least shed light on some wrongdoing.
Now, it seems, we’ve decided that the problem isn’t that we put all our eggs in one basket; the problem was what basket we chose. This time around, we’ve apparently decided that tourism will be the new basket for all Iceland’s eggs. Business is booming, the bubble is swelling, hotels are sprouting faster than weeds, and there is an unexamined, baseless assumption that tourism is an industry that will just keep on growing in Iceland, without end.
This kind of attitude makes me very nervous. It gives me a creeping déjà vu. There are plenty of indications that the same laissez-faire attitude that we once had about finance will take hold of tourism. Take, for example, the series of tourists-pooping-outdoors stories. Sure, we all had a good laugh over that, but tour guides aren’t laughing. They’ve been pointing out for months now that there are simply not enough outdoor toilets for the growing influx of visitors. Yet the response from Minister for the Environment Sigrún Magnúsdóttir was that the problem is actually a “lack of respect” on behalf of tourists. Yes, that’s right, a government minister thinks the problem is you.
This is the essence of the government’s attitude about a rapidly growing industry that is outsizing the population several times over – the same attitude it had ten years ago. And that’s not good.
This is the message I want those of you who are current or prospective tourists to take to heart: you are not the problem. We love you. This whole magazine is for you. We show you places you can go, things you can do, and also what kinds of things Icelanders are talking about. Amongst the things they’re talking about is how the tourism industry is rapidly, dizzyingly growing, what effects that is having on our tiny society, and how this can be better managed. One thing’s for certain – the problems we are currently dealing with having little to do with tourists, and almost everything to do with the management of the tourism industry.
That’s why I feel reporting on how tourism is being managed is important. There is no such thing as unlimited growth, and we can learn from the mistakes of ten years ago, if we want to. There is a big difference between being critical and being negative. I am very positive about tourists. I believe, for the sake of our economy and our society, that we need to be critical of the management of tourism.