Published August 28, 2015
Lately, we at Grapevine often find ourselves in a somewhat difficult position when it comes to reporting on life in Iceland.
On one hand, we are clearly and proudly a tourist publication, one that has the stated aim of serving visitors to Iceland and offering them a critical window into local events, culture and discourse. This has been our MO since our very first issue, way back in 2003, when only around 60,000 travellers passed through Keflavík International Airport (last year, the number amounted to roughly 1.4 million. My, how we’ve grown).
On the other, we care deeply about our local community—the people; their values, culture and traditions—and we try to actively support and participate in it. The culture that has evolved in Iceland through the ages has value in and of itself (much like any regional culture, anywhere in the world). What our ancestors have built is inherently important, and we are all responsible for preserving it; for treating it with respect and handling it with care (while of course remaining susceptible to necessary change, and critical enough to eschew the rotten parts, of which there are plenty).
So, while The Reykjavík Grapevine is ostensibly For The Tourists, it is also no less meant to foster and support local culture, offering the natives an outside perspective on their surroundings while maintaining an active platform for them to engage in discussion and self-expression. Oh, and we also try our best to publicise local music, art and other cultural offerings—to tell the (English-speaking) world about all that great stuff we’ve got going on, in a language it understands.
As the abovementioned Keflavík Airport passenger numbers demonstrate, Icelandic tourism has experienced somewhat of a BOOM! in the twelve years since we started publishing our little magazine. This unfettered growth has, inevitably, resulted in clashes between the tourists that we serve and the community we belong to. Which can put us in a bit of a tight spot.
Whether local concerns about things like “the mass exodus of music venues from downtown Reykjavík” are justified or not is mostly beside the point. The important part is that they are an expression of a collective emotion: a clear sign that the community which voices them is experiencing difficulties adjusting to a rapidly changing environment—an attempt to understand and contend with what’s going on.
Now, tourism is great. It is our lifeblood, and it provides a steady stream of new ideas and outside influence to a once-isolated society that has often suffered from stasis and lack of imagination. Plus, travelling is super fun and everyone should do it.
Tourism is great, but as any industry—especially one that’s undergoing a period of unfettered growth—it needs to be carefully managed and considered, thought out and discussed. As Grapevine journalist Paul Fontaine noted in a powerful opinion piece a few issues back, we Icelanders have far too often placed all our eggs in one basket, gleefully rushing forward with reckless abandon in a clumsy gold rush orgy that inevitably ends in tears (seriously, it’s been, what, seven years since we last passed through a valley of the shadow of death?).
Don’t for one second imagine that we don’t love you guys, tourists. A lot of us that have toiled making the Grapevine through the years began our journey as tourists. And most of the rest are Reykjavík outsiders, formerly isolated country bumpkins who came here for much the same reason as many of you did – to partake in this wonderful city’s vibrant culture and contribute to it to the best of our ability.
To go back to the ever-popular “music venue vs. hotel and puffin shop debate,” it is clear that many of those who criticise the current development have not fully registered that a thriving downtown area goes a long way towards ensuring our musicians and artists can make an actual living off their strife, that there is a market for what they would sell and celebrate
Meanwhile, many of those who take offence at Icelanders’ concerns about the effects of mass tourism perhaps fail to comprehend that the criticisms voiced are not directed at them personally, but at the many opportunists who seek to exploit them for profit.
Anyway: There is nothing wrong with tourism. There is nothing wrong with profit, and there is nothing wrong with business (well, maybe there is, but that’s a different discussion). There is, however, something wrong with shortsighted lunging at an unclear goalpost without considering the ramifications.
There are no easy solutions to our current conundrum. Proposed ones, such as seeking to limit the number of travellers that are admitted to the country, or changing priorities or marketing to appeal only to wealthy demographics, seem mostly elitist and wrong.
Nope. Our best course of action is to demand that those we have elected to power—officials on both municipal and state levels—take some real steps towards ensuring the preservation and conservation of the culture we love and the sites we are fond of, while enabling us to welcome anyone who would visit with open arms.
Also, thank you, Anna. It’s been a blast.