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Iceland Is Not Overrun With Tourists, Despite What Everyone Says

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© Getty

By Katherine LaGrave, Condé Nast Traveler

By now, you've probably seen at least one photo of Iceland on your Instagram feed—could be of a glacier, those famed Northern Lights, or a lunar-looking landscape. It's been a few good years of press and attention for the island nation, to say the least. Unfortunately, the boon also comes with headlines like "Iceland Will Soon Have More American Tourists Than Actual Residents" and "Iceland Is Tired of People Just Visiting Reykjavík." Is Iceland the poster child for overtourism? Not quite. We sat down with María Reynisdóttir, tourism specialist at Iceland's Ministry of Industries and Innovation, to see what she thought about the crowds of visitors, responsible travel behavior, and Icelandic food.

How would you describe Iceland’s current state of overtourism?

I wouldn't call it overtourism. Iceland is a fairly large island. But yes, okay, Iceland has been mentioned in the context of overtourism—the main reason being since 2010, we’ve seen a 25 percent growth year on year, which is not a sustainable growth rate. It’s actually slowing down now, but the fast growth and catching up with that growth has been the focus. The fast growth has caused pressure of certain kinds, in certain areas at certain times. [Editor's note: Reynisdóttir was referring to Reykjavík, the capital city, and the Golden Circle route.] There’s far from being pressure all over Iceland. Iceland is not overrun with tourists. But we do have problems in specific areas, parts of sites, and we’ve started to focus more on visitor management and adding infrastructure and those kinds of things, and changing our marketing message to distribute visitors.

I think some people point to the stopover program, which has been going on for a number of years, as a key factor in tourism growth.

I do think the stopover program has a role to play in the tourism growth, so in a way it’s been positive in terms of helping our economy rebound after the financial crash. But the downside is that [you can stay] up to seven days, and people usually have a short timeframe and don't manage to get far from Reykjavík and where the airport is. So that means more pressure on the capital. But our surveys show that around 20 percent of passengers decision to visit Iceland because of the stopover program. So it is one of the factors, but not one of the biggest factors in the growth.

You mentioned the misconceptions. I went to Iceland four years ago in June, and went back again in June of this year. And yes, Reykjavík can be crowded at certain points, but you get out into the countryside and you go 15 minutes without seeing another car. There’s a lot of the country left to explore.

That's one of the main challenges—the regions of the east, north, and west, they’re like, Hey, we’d like more tourists! Bring them over. It’s important for regional development and we’ve seen businesses pop up [when tourists arrive]. It really does matter. We’ve been very successful at reducing seasonality. Only a few years ago, half of all visitors came between June, July, and August. Now that’s down to 35 percent. So tourism has become a year-round industry supporting year-round, full-time jobs. That’s mostly in Reykjavík, and in the east, north, south, and west you still have that seasonality curve. That’s something we want to change, but it takes time. We have a route development fund to encourage routes to the north. But it takes time to build the market.

In what ways is Iceland looking to grow tourism numbers? Or, rather, what's the current messaging?

We actually don't have any aim of growing tourism numbers—we haven't had that for years. In 2010 we had this volcanic eruption and Iceland was in the news everywhere, with the photos of dark ash and people with masks on. The message then was, "Don't be afraid of coming to Iceland." Then we were in a crisis, and bookings were going down. Then messaging changed: Iceland during winter, fall, spring. Iceland, all regions. And the latest focus is responsible travel behavior. So we’ve done different campaigns focusing on how people can travel safely and responsibly while having fun. Like I said, we don't have any tourism growth aims. But we do see seasonality and want to increase profitability of the sector and reduce impact on the environment—these kind of general aims.

How much change to the environment is acceptable, and when do you step over that limit?

© Getty The Westfjords peninsula faces Greenland.

You've got a hard job: It's a fine balance between wanting people to come and holding them accountable—making them be responsible.

Yes, it’s all about the balance. I think research is important and is something we’ll continue focusing on. We’ve established a new tourism research unit and they're supposed to make plans based on data so we have all that in one place. We actually have an ambitious, interesting project. We’re going to try and answer the question "How many tourists can Iceland carry?" We don’t think any kind of country has done this kind of study before. We’re done with phase one, which is developing indicators for the environment, infrastructure, economy, and society, and the tourist experience. We’ve got 60 indicators overall. The next step is to put values on those indicators and determine how stretchable they are. Out of that, we will hopefully be able to see what that magic number is.

We’re doing this for the whole of Iceland to try and get a rough idea of what the country can handle, but we also need to do this research at the site level in order to be able to apply these to crowd control techniques that we don't have today. For example, entrance to our attractions is generally free, because in Iceland, like in the Nordic cultures, it's written in law about the public's right to roam. People have a right to cross over land without any barriers or without having to pay, and we hold that very dear. But we are actually reviewing that legislation system, so third parties that want to do business on land within national parks will have to apply for a license. You need to establish some kind of model for doing research on different sites. How much change to the environment is acceptable, and when do you step over that limit? We need to establish this research model to be able to base any management decisions on this.

When is the second phase supposed to be completed?

In February. Engineering consultants put values on those indicators, and the input from this will then transfer into our new tourism strategy that will take over the current roadmap action plan that's in place until 2020. So preparations have started for a new tourism strategy. It's really exciting.

What other countries do you learn from?

New Zealand. It’s our best-practice country in many ways. Their research is very well developed, as are their visitor management techniques: the signage and all that. We've looked to Scotland in terms of skill: We launched a tourism skills and training center, which was based on the Scottish center.

All rugged islands.

Yeah, we’re looking at destinations that have similar landscapes, like Canada and Norway, as well. Norway has a interesting system to get people off the beaten track with their tourist route program. We want to start it in the north, for our Northern Coastway. It's not finished yet.

I asked you about overtourism and you were quick to correct me, which was good. So what are some things that media can do differently about covering it?

A lot of it is very positive. But it’s [the topic] evolving and I’d like to see more of that. I know it’s a challenge for media to grab people’s attention with headlines. But like I said, overtourism is a complex subject: It’s not that overtourism is everywhere—even in these cities like Venice or Barcelona, you can always find a little corner somewhere.

And I don't think the answer is to send people elsewhere.

No, not only that. You need management. I think we’re realizing it more and more. We need to decide, for each area, where do we want tourism? What type? For whom? Where do we maybe want to keep some sites untouched? Because that’s the image people have. Many people don't mind being in crowded areas—in fact, I think most of us expect a popular site will have other people in it. But many people also come to Iceland looking for a certain experience, like in the Highland with barely anyone there. There’s value in that. We’re one of the last wildernesses in Europe, and that's precious. So if you just build everywhere and distribute, distribute, distribute, you’ll end with mass tourism everywhere. Mass tourism can be fine if you concentrate it in certain areas and build proper infrastructure: good strong paths, or one way around. But then we need to keep other areas untouched for those who want that kind of experience. That’s sort of the next step.

It's easier, I'm sure, building it in as you’re going, instead of retroactively.

We’ve been playing catch up but now, that’s an important project that’s being finalized now. Each region is making a specific plan for tourism for their region. So that will be key for each local tourism authority to have a say.

If someone was coming to Iceland for seven days, what would you tell them to do?

I’d tell them to go far away from Reykjavík: I’d send them to the east, to the north, to the beautiful Westfjords. I would tell them to shop locally. I’d tell them to read up before they arrive and check Visit Iceland and Inspired by Iceland and those fun tutorials that we have on how to dress, how to drive, how to take the best photo of the Northern Lights.

© Getty Aurora borealis over Kirkjufell, on the north coast of Iceland's Snæfellsnes peninsula.

Some places are must-see places and there’s a reason why. So yeah, go to the Golden Circle, but go there in evening—remember that in summer we have the midnight sun. Winter also has its charms. There's a reason why the South Coast's sites—the glacier lagoon, the black-sand beaches—are popular. But also go to Seyðisfjörður in the east for its artsy vibes. Oh, and try the new spa experiences: a beer spa in the north, and the natural hot springs where you can just swim. Wouldn't that be a good trip?

Not the Blue Lagoon?

Well, I still recommend the Blue Lagoon. That’s actually the best managed tourist site in all of Iceland. But go swimming as much as possible—the municipal pools are great, cheaper, and open until late in the evening. But the food—that’s something that surprises people a lot.

I think people think of the shark, and the hot dogs. But you have lots of good soups in Iceland—the fish soup, the lamb soup. And the doughnuts!

Oh yes, kleinur.

We don’t have those. We have Dunkin’ Donuts.

Yeah, we also have Dunkin’ Donuts now, too. [Laughs]

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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