Posted by: neilh10 | May 7, 2012

Europe’s Ex-Best Kept Secret?

The latest editorial from the GRAPEVINE articulates very well the sense that many of us have that Iceland is losing a lot of what makes it special. To quote Anna:

Iceland has changed over the last decade. Only ten years ago you could have called Iceland one of Europe’s best kept secrets. It was exotic, untouched, foreign to most people who might have been able to tell you that Iceland is green and Greenland is icy or perhaps that they knew Björk was Icelandic.

She continues

Iceland is becoming a bit like “Greenland Light”—a diet version of spectacular untouched, raw nature….Who knows what’ll happen in the coming decade, but let’s just hope we don’t turn all of our natural beauty into accommodation for tourists, and that we don’t destroy what makes Iceland special. We should probably enjoy our island and its unique qualities while we can.

This in turn got me thinking.

I can never work out if Iceland is really changing or I am just becoming more familliar with the country, because I travel there so much, to the point where I have definetely gone beyond being a tourist and look upon the place as home (albeit a second home). Certainly, I would say that a large part of the ‘problem’ of increased tourism is percieved rather than actual. Looking at the governments own statistics, the actual numbers of foreign arrivals did not increase at all between 2007 (458,889) and 2010 (459,252), although there is a sharp increase in 2011 (540,824), a year on year increase of 15%, which is likely set to continue this year given the increasing capacity of flights in to the country. A notable rise, that builds on earlier growth (in 2002 there were only 308,768) but perhaps not as dramatic as everyone seems to be making out.

But for reasons I will try and explain, perception is important. Whenever I talk to people back in the UK I find it very difficult to explain what is exactly the attraction of the country. Much of Iceland is a moon like mountainous terrain, interspersed with sea and tiny villages with quirky, painted houses. There isn’t much to do, except talk and drink coffee. The weather is totally unpredictable, and by far the majority of days are cloudy with varying degrees of dullness. When the weather is good, it is really beautiful, but – as I have learned – days like these are rare and unpredictable – you can never depend on them. The real attraction of the country is that it is so different, a ‘retreat’, if you like, from the insanity of life here in most of the rest of the world. If you are looking for activities, you probably wont find them here in Iceland, not reliably so, in any case. And, as soon as too many tourists arrive, the country gets crowded and the initial attraction – the mystery and the ‘retreat’ element, is lost. It just becomes a load of rocks in the middle of nowhere, swampted with tourists and with catastrophic weather.

And the question also arises of the perception Icelanders have towards tourists. Traditionally, the tourists have primarily a source of humour as they exist in their own colourful bubble, fascinated by unremarkable things, and purchasing ironic and ridiculous souveniers, like toy puffins. They provide a small and relatively insignificant amount of employment which keeps high school students occupied during their summer vacations, some of whom go on to become freelancers who supplement their income by working well in to their twenties and thirties as tour guides and manning hotel reception desks. For the most part, the actual tourists understand very little about the country they are in, but they tend to leave happy and with some interesting experiences, in any case.

Personally, I think that a big part of the problem is not so much that there are more tourists – it is that the tourists that do arrive have higher expectations. They don’t want to be part of a raincoated icelandair tour group, they are very familliar with navigating their way around the world with their lonely planet guides. They want to see the country for themselves. They are also used to booking things up on the internet and want to get the best price possible, indeed the whole trip will have been ‘costed out’ and will be carefully budgetted. The visit is seen as a transaction of sorts, they arrive with certain things that they want to get, and Iceland will ultimately be judged on how well it delivers. Volcano’s, thermal baths, the northern lights…. possibly an autograph from Sigur ros and a visit to a phallogical exhibition thrown in.

Ultimately, my sense is that poor old Iceland will eventually lose, in this ridiculous game. Once the initial mystique is killed off (and this will happen very soon), people will realise that the country isn’t ready for tourism, and it is only a matter of time before the TNT editorials that urge people to visit Iceland before everyone else does will be replaced with musings about how the weather is terrible and how you’ll get ripped off by the taxi drivers, complaints about how the northern lights tours won’t refund you when the lights don’t come out, and high profile lawsuits following on from the inevitable injuries and deaths caused by the tempremental nature of the land and the absence of ‘danger’ signs. I can see it all playing out in a completely predictable way. The travel articles will change their focus to Greenland (for outdoor adventures) or Norway or Sweden (for a better value, more predictable experience).

I can’t really see any way out of this dilemma, other than just to content yourself with the fact that, assuming things eventually die down and the tourist numbers tail off, Iceland will be exactly the same place as it was before, albeit with better flight connections, a few more hotels and a more organised and commercially focussed travel industry. There are far worse things that could have happened to the country. There will still be beautiful spots where it is possible to get away from it all, and Flateyri will be one of them.  



  1. I like your view better than the Grapevine’s!

    Your point about tourists having higher expectations – do you think this is true of tourists now no matter where they are visiting, or specifically tourists visiting Iceland?

    I think that ulitmately most people that visit Iceland won’t “get” it enough to keep coming back, even if they have a great time when they are there. I think too much is made of the nightlife, and the type of younger person that comes to experience Reykjavik’s “wild party scene” won’t be back.

    I do hope that this view of Iceland being seen as a currently hip and trendy place to go expires, which I suppose it will – nowhere can be the latest and greatest place for very long. I just hope that happens before Iceland starts building train lines, Lazytown theme parks and other monstrosities. 🙂

    – From a hypocritical tourist 🙂

  2. Hi , eva

    I agree, completely with what you are saying about most of the tourists being ‘one off’s’. I think for most people the Iceland box gets ticked and that’s that. I guess only time will tell how all this plays out, but I for one remain hopeful that the increase in tourism can be made into a good thing.

    I think my point about ‘higher expectations’ is that people turn up in Iceland thinking about their trip in the same way they would if they were going to Dublin or Sweden or wherever else it is that people go on city breaks. But, the fact is that Iceland is very, very different. It is a very isolated, remote island community of only 300,000 people. It is a wonderful place but it is very difficult to deliver on peoples expectations, when everything is so unpredictable. Building up a tourism industry that caters to this kind of traveller- particularly outside of Reykjavik – is going to be very, very challenging.

    I thought the account you gave of the northern lights tour was a good example of the challenge!

    Finally, I think that the Icelanders will always be hip and fashionable, more so than I will ever be!

    Thanks for commenting 🙂

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