Icelandic Tourism Has Gone Through the Roof (And That's Not Necessarily a Good Thing)

Sightseeing buses have long been a staple at natural Icelandic attractions like Gulfoss, a waterfall in the southwest of the country. However, a sharp influx of tourists, many of them clamoring to visit 'Game of Thrones' filming locations, has proved to be a burden on infrastructure. (Photo: Luc Van Braekel/flickr)

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was obsessed with Iceland. Absolutely obsessed.

While the far-flung Nordic nation’s otherworldly beauty played into my raging country crush, I was mostly pining to visit because of Björk. Not that I necessarily wanted to fly to Reykjavik and embark on some sort of prohibitively expensive-for-a-college-student geothermal spa vacation on the off-chance I’d encounter the singer in her native environment.

Rather, Björk, as she did for many Gen-X'ers, opened my eyes to contemporary Icelandic culture, particularly film and music. I ate it all up.

Bjork sign, Icleand
Bjork sign, Iceland. (Photo: Greta Lovisa Gustafsson/flickr)

At around the same time my Iceland-love had reached its crescendo, I spent several months traveling extensively around mainland Europe. Yet Iceland, my beloved Iceland, remained out of reach for one reason or another, mainly geography.

I told myself it just wasn’t the time and that some day I’d return. After all, Iceland wasn’t going anywhere — I assumed it would remain sleepy, mysterious, untouched by the madding crowds that I’d encountered elsewhere in Europe. It would remain a special place.

Nearly 15 years and one economic collapse followed by a prolonged volcanic disruption later, I still haven’t set foot in Iceland. And I fear that my opportunity has passed.

While Iceland still is a special place, others have since discovered this island nation of roughly 320,000 long-living residents — and not because of Björk. The blood-drenched HBO fantasy series “Game of Thrones” has showcased the country's stark natural beauty on numerous occasions and, as a result, birthed a whole new generation of Iceland-philes.

While the massively popular series isn’t filmed exclusively on location in Iceland, several key locales including Thingvellir National Park and Myvatn Lake have lured "Game of Throne" fans en masse to the country, all of them looking to make a pilgrimage to the lands north of the Wall.

Hruni, Arnessysla, Iceland
Just like pretty much everywhere in Iceland, Arnessysla, a region in the southwest of the country, is a goldmine of selfie opps. (Photo: George Atanassov/flickr)

In a way, Iceland’s “Game of Thrones”-driven tourism boom is reminiscent of Manhattan’s West Village during the height of another HBO series, “Sex in the City.” Just swap out brownstones with iceberg lagoons and the cupcake shops with lava caves and you’re somewhere close. But seriously, from the sounds of it, you can’t swing a salted cod in downtown Reykjavik without hitting a wild-eyed "GoT" tour group.

And while Icelandic tourism officials have certainly welcomed the influx of new visitors, the nation’s newfound popularity falls somewhat squarely within the Scandinavian tradition of being too much of a good thing.

Simply put, Iceland is struggling, on both the infrastructure and accommodations front, to keep up with the new arrivals. Quirky and off-the-beaten-path Iceland, which is expected to attract 1.6 million tourists this year, is nearing full capacity. Like in the past, many travelers are just stopping in briefly en route to elsewhere on one of Icelandair’s famed extended layovers. But more so than ever, folks are sticking around and venturing well beyond the airport.

As Caroline Davies writes for the Guardian, the staggering number of visitors — many, but not certainly not all of them attracted to the country by “Game of Thrones” and a slew of recent Hollywood productions — expected to descend on Iceland this year is a 29 percent increase from just last year.

Reykjavik Iceland
Iceland's capital city of Reykjavik is home to 120,000 residents and a disproportionate number of Airbnb rentals. (Photo: Marco Bellucci/flickr)

In fact, tourism now accounts for a whopping 34 percent of Iceland’s export revenues, nearly twice the amount that it did in 2010. Traditionally, fishing has served as the cornerstone of Iceland’s economy.

What’s more, it’s believed that the number (nearly 4,000!) of Airbnb rental properties in the capital city of Reykjavik and beyond have jumped a staggering 124 percent since last year, impacting the local real estate market in the process.

The Icelandic government is now moving to limit the amount of time that Icelanders can list Airbnb properties before they're required to pay a business tax. The new restrictions, if passed, would place a 90-day annual cap on Airbnb rentals before said businesses tax kicks in. In April, the Icelandic Supreme Court ruled that apartment-dwelling Icelanders looking to rent their spare rooms — or entire flats — on Airbnb must receive the full blessing of the other residents in their apartment buildings before doing so.

Outside of Reykjavik, smaller towns such as Kirkjubæjarklaustur and Vík í Mýrda have already instituted rules on the number and duration of short-term vacation rentals.

While Icelandic officials certainly don’t want to put the kibosh on tourism or outright ban Airbnb, the restrictions demonstrate that they do want to limit it. “Everyone sees that something needs to change,” explains Áshildur Bragadóttir, director of Visit Reykjavík, to the Guardian. “We don’t want downtown Reykjavík to be tourists only, with no locals.”

Icelandic Airbnb
Icelandic Airbnb rentals can take on many shapes and sizes. This one, located in the countryside, doesn't look too disagreeable in the very least. (Photo: Adon Metcalfe/flickr)

Some Icelanders feel, however, that the irreversible damage that often comes along with being an international tourist destination has already been done.

As the Guardian reports, there have been complaints about the rise of chain stores and so-called “puffin shops” — Viking kitsch-slinging souvenir joints geared exclusively toward tourists — in Reykjavik’s quaint downtown core. In the meantime, many of the cafes and nightclubs that attracted me back in the day have shed much of their local color or disappeared completely. Gunnar þór Jóhannesson, an associate professor at the University of Iceland who specializes in topics of tourism planning and policy, notes that some residents, however welcoming of foreign tourists, have lamented that “the city centre is being hollowed out, becoming sort of Disneyfied.”

Outside of Reykjavik, there are other concerns. Infrastructure at Iceland’s national parks and other awe-inspiring natural landmarks — think: waterfalls, hot springs, fjords, lava fields and the like — simply isn’t up to snuff.

Thingvellir National Park in Iceland.
Bad behavior, including littering and public urination, has reportedly plagued popular Icelandic tourist sites such as Thingvellir National Park. (Photo: Gordon Cheung/flickr)

There’s not enough places to park or use the restroom. Previously sparsely traversed walking trails have become increasingly crowded. There’s traffic — and even worse, reports of off-road driving that puts sacred elf habitats at risk. There have been reports of trampling, trespassing and straight-out-rude behavior as, suddenly, everyone is flocking to the middle of nowhere.

Again, Icelandic officials don’t want to discourage tourism as that would be suicide for the nation’s rebounding economy. They just want to employ creative and effective ways to manage it as it continues to grow.

For one, officials are mulling over the construction of additional international airports in remote areas outside of densely populated Reykjavik and the Reykanes peninsula on the southwest coast; harder-to-access areas in the north and east of the island that will both take the burden off of an overwhelmed Keflavik Airport and cater more to adventurous, GoT-driven tourists — that is, folks that don’t necessarily have any desire to start or end their trip near a city or perennially popular tourist attractions like the Blue Lagoon or Gulfoss waterfall.

Geyshir, Iceland
All eyes on Geysir, a famed geyser in southwestern Iceland. (Photo: George Atanassov/flickr)

And as Jóhannesson explains, improvements such as new trails and additional viewing platforms could help things along at far-flung and increasingly high-traffic locations.

A proposal to charge a fee at previously free-to-access natural sites failed due largely to the fact that tourists and residents would have been required to pay per EU rules. In addition requiring entrance fees, a move which would helped raise funds for the new infrastructure described above, a cap on the number of visitors allowed to access popular sites at any one time has also been considered.

Others believe that an outright cap on the number of tourists allowed to enter the country should be instituted. “Iceland needs to focus on low volume tourism and discerning travelers willing to pay a realistic price to enjoy this remarkable island,” Clive Stacey of travel agency Discover the World, told Quartz in 2015.

Myvatn Lake, Iceland
Myvatn Lake, in the north of Iceland, is a popular stopover on the "Game of Thrones" tourism circuit. (Photo: Nick/flickr)

Despite reports of rampaging tourists in the countryside and the Airbnb-ification of Reykjavik, it’s not all doom and gloom in Iceland. Officials in this tightly-knight volcanic outpost in the North Atlantic are looking to please everyone — wary locals and “Game of Thrones” fans alike. And maybe those who worshipped at the altar of Björk in the late 1990s, too. Despite being a different country than the one I was enchanted with with over a decade ago, I haven't written off Iceland completely.

“It is easy to paint a rather bleak picture of what is happening, because it happened so fast, that Iceland is getting swamped in tourists. But it is not necessarily like that,” Jóhannesson tells the Guardian. “It is a huge challenge, and in all fairness, the government is trying now and taking a firm grip on things. It is growing pains.”