Over the past few years, it’s likely your Instagram feed has been littered with photos of friends, acquaintances, even perfect strangers posing precariously atop the cliffs overlooking Iceland’s Reynisfjara beach or paddling around in the milky turquoise waters of the famous Blue Lagoon. Indeed, the hashtag “Iceland” has been used 11.6 million times on the social network, both a cause and a symptom of the astronomical number of visitors who have visited the island over the past decade.
Although its total population is just 356,991, in 2018 a record 2.3 million international travellers visited the Scandinavian country. That’s up from 2.2 million the previous year – and just 488,000 in 2010. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of visitors to Iceland increased by an average of 24.3 per cent every year, with peak growth in 2016, when the number of tourists grew by 42.3 per cent. Iceland isn’t the only country that has seen this kind of popularity; Vietnam, Nepal and Tajikistan, among others, have all seen massive surges of tourism arrivals in the past few years.
By themselves, boosted visitor numbers would be enough to raise the spectre of “overtourism,” a term that covers the congestion, negative environmental effects and conflicts with locals that happen as a result of tourist overcrowding. But in Iceland, there are also the horror stories about tourists knocking on residents’ doors to request free accommodation; marking the words “send nudes” in the slow-growing vegetation on one of the country’s famous mossy hills; and, disturbingly, defecating everywhere. Think, in farmers’ fields, around the popular waterfall Gullfoss, and even on the side of the Reykjanesbraut, a busy highway that runs between Reykjavik and Keflavik airport.
These factors have placed Iceland, along with countries such as Croatia, Portugal and Greece and cities including Amsterdam, Barcelona and Venice, at the forefront of the conversation around sustainable travel.
Not only can the impact of overtourism mean serious damage to the environment or the destinations themselves, locals may be pushed out by rising rents as landlords realize they can make more from short-term rentals; that’s the case on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, where a 2019 report by the Chartered Institute of Housing found there are proportionally more Airbnbs on offer than in Edinburgh, despite having just 2 per cent of the larger city’s population. According to a 2018 column in The National, a Scottish paper, that means there are few, if any, flats available for long-term renters.
Some destinations have even been shut down entirely. In 2018, the Filipino island of Boracay was closed for six months after raw sewage from hotels and restaurants leaked into the ocean because the island’s overloaded infrastructure couldn’t handle the volume of waste. And in Thailand, Koh Tachai, a small island that was popular with day-trippers, has been closed since 2016. Maya Bay, which famously featured in the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio thriller The Beach, was closed to visitors to give its marine ecosystem time to recover from damage caused by tourists. It won’t re-open until 2021.
But although Iceland teetered on the edge of overtourism, it has managed to avoid being overwhelmed by it. As the world’s most popular destinations grapple with the same issues, in one way or another, Iceland’s model is one they should be watching.
According to tourism researcher and University of Waterloo professor Sanjay Nepal, concern over the impact of tourism isn’t new. Even though the word “overtourism” didn’t appear until the 2000s, it has been studied since the 1970s. But the rise of a new, global middle class means there are many more people with the disposable income to travel. “As of 2018, we had 1.4 billion tourists travelling around the world,” he says. “And you’re not even talking about domestic tourists.”
Iceland thought it was prepared for a boost in visitors when it launched an aggressive tourism ad campaign in 2010 – a response to the country’s financial crisis in 2008 that saw the three biggest banks collapse and the currency in freefall, and to the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. But the campaign worked a little too well.
According to a 2018 report by the Icelandic Tourist Board, tourism’s share of foreign exchange earnings increased from 26.4 per cent in 2013 to 42 per cent in 2017, outpacing exports of both marine and industrial products. It also led to job creation. And the report states that the number of people working in tourism or adjacent sectors has increased by more than 68 per cent annually since 2013. “Adding in its direct, indirect and induced impacts, the sector currently supports 33.8 per cent of the Icelandic economy. And this is expected to continue to grow to 41 per cent over the next decade,” says Rochelle Turner, research director at World Travel and Tourism Council.
Much of the country’s tourism has historically been constrained to specific regions and a relatively short chunk of the year, two key risk factors for overtourism. This meant people who worked in the industry were financially vulnerable during the low season and the country was experiencing many of the consequences of mass popularity that University of Waterloo professor Nepal identified in a 2019 paper published in the journal Tourism Geographies: alienated local residents (rising rent, noise, new restrictions in their communities and changing neighbourhood characteristics); degraded tourist experiences (long lines, limited seating capacity); overloaded infrastructure (high levels of energy consumption, waste generation and traffic congestion); natural damages (pollution and overuse of natural resources); and threats to culture and heritage (intercultural misunderstandings and threats to a destination’s overall integrity).
Officials are hesitant to claim the country experienced overtourism. Sigridur Dogg Gudmundsdottir, manager of Visit Iceland, one of the country’s tourist initiatives, says she thinks it’s “not fair to say that there is overtourism in Iceland.” She explains: “It is easy to explore Iceland without running into crowds.”
But even if they’d prefer not to use the term, Iceland’s government didn’t hesitate to institute policies aimed at sustainably managing tourism growth. “In 2011, the parliament defined core objectives for the tourism sector, naming ‘sustainability and responsibility for Iceland’s culture and natural surroundings’ as a priority,” Turner says. And they’ve continued to focus on sustainable growth. The following year, the country established the Tourist Site Protection Fund; partly funded by revenue from an accommodation tax, its function is to protect nature and encourage the development of new attractions, which would ideally reduce pressure on the most popular existing tourist sites. And in 2018, the government launched a new 12-year National Infrastructure Plan that spells out steps for protecting existing attractions and developing “larger, state-owned and municipal tourist sites,” she says.
The country has also changed how it advertises itself. Rather than simple “come to Iceland” messaging, “in the last few years, marketing efforts for Iceland as a destination have mostly focused on safety and responsible travel behaviour, and off-season tourism and increasing tourism in less visited regions,” Gudmundsdottir says. Most tourists visit Reykjavik and Iceland’s south shore, and the traditional high season falls during the height of summer, when days are long and temperatures are mild. But recently, the country has been promoting winter attractions, such as the Northern Lights and Reykjavik’s New Year’s Eve fireworks. They’re also encouraging tourists to visit other parts of the country, such as Akureyri, the country’s second-largest city, which has been called “capital of the north.”
It seems to be working; the worst headlines about badly behaved tourists date back to 2017, and visitors are now arriving throughout the year. “In 2012, Iceland had the highest seasonality in tourist arrivals of all the Nordic countries, with most tourists visiting during the summertime,” Gudmundsdottir says. “Since then, seasonality has decreased steadily. In 2015, Iceland reached the point of having the second lowest seasonality among the Nordic countries and in 2018, 65 per cent of tourists visited during autumn, winter and spring combined, and 35 per cent visited during summer.”
The government has also taken drastic steps, when necessary. In 2015, Justin Bieber filmed a music video for his song I’ll Show You at Fjadrargljufur, a canyon in southeastern Iceland that, until then, had been mostly ignored by tourists. Four years and more than 457 million YouTube views later, tourists were flocking to the canyon and the Environment Agency of Iceland was worried that they were causing irreparable damage. So last March, it was closed to visitors to give the soil time to recover. Initially, the closing was meant to last for only two weeks, but after seeing the scope of the damage, it was extended to June, the beginning of the busy summer season.
And the most popular destinations have made changes, too. In 2016, the Blue Lagoon underwent an expansion; renovations increased the area of the Lagoon to 8,700 square metres from 5,800 square metres – but the number of daily visitors stayed the same, which helped to solve the problem of overcrowding. The following year, the Lagoon implemented a prebooking system, which eliminated bottlenecks at busy times by ensuring a steady flow of visitors throughout the day.
To be fair, Iceland’s attempts to avoid the effects of overtourism aren’t singular. Many countries are rethinking their marketing approaches, trying to attract visitors during slow times and to less-popular destinations and closing attractions when necessary. The difference is, Iceland saw a problem on the horizon after its first year of sudden growth and was nimble enough to start implementing solutions right away.
And of course, the problem isn’t solved. “[Tourism] management, investment in infrastructure and long-term policy is lagging,” says Gunnar Thor Johannesson, a professor at the University of Iceland’s department of geography and tourism. “Much more effort needs to put into [managing] natural sites. The administration framework for this is still very complex. Research is critical for being able to make [the best] decisions possible. Unfortunately, this is something that the authorities have been slow in recognizing.”
Perhaps the most powerful factor will be consumer behaviour, though. Pinterest highlighted responsible travel as one of its top trends of 2020. It seems as if every major travel publication has touched on climate, sustainability and overtourism in their annual trend forecasts. And global Google searches for “overtourism” have steadily increased for the past four years, with a spike in late June, 2019, likely linked to a spate of articles on the topic in The Atlantic, The Washington Post and CNN after a collision between a cruise ship and a smaller boat in Venice’s Giudecca Canal. It appears tourists are beginning to grasp the importance of responsible travel – and to recognize their own roles in maintaining these destinations.
In Iceland, astronomical growth couldn’t last forever; by 2018, tourist arrivals had started to slow and, last year, the number of visitors to the country decreased by 10 per cent. However, despite hand-wringing media coverage of the slowdown, this shift isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Analysts project that there will be a similar number of tourists visiting in 2020, so further decrease is not projected,” Gudmundsdottir says. “This indicates that Iceland is moving into a more sustainable tourism after a decade of rapid growth in tourist arrivals.” That might be the best tourism-related news the country has received all decade – and that’s saying something.
Plan of attack
What other destinations are doing to mitigate the effects of overtourism, from the inventive to the over-the-top
- In 2018, Jackson Hole, Wyo., Travel and Tourism launched a new campaign asking visitors not to use geotags when posting Instagram photos. They hoped it would reduce traffic and keep hiking newbies from venturing into areas they’re not prepared to traverse in search of the perfect shot.
- According to Chris Heywood, executive vice-president of global communications at NYC & Company, the city’s marketing organization, one of its key growth management strategies is “highlighting boroughs and neighbourhoods beyond the main tourism core of the city to ensure that visitors are actually spreading out geographically across the five boroughs.”
- In 2019, Amsterdam stopped promoting itself as a travel destination entirely. Instead, it shifted focus to attracting the right kind of tourist. It even launched an ad campaign, called Enjoy & Respect, targeting men between 18 and 24 from the Netherlands and Britain, who research showed were responsible for most of the tourism-related trouble in the city. (Think littering, noise and public urination.)
- Last November, the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, where popular beach destinations including Cabo San Lucas are located, instituted a new tourist tax. Many destinations have indirect taxes on tourists in the form of hotel or airport fees, but this one, which costs the equivalent of $24, is charged directly to visitors and is payable at airport kiosks. The state says the money will go toward infrastructure and social services.
- In 2018, Venice’s mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, proposed a sitting ban in any public space in the lagoon city with fees ranging from €50 to €500 (about $73 to $729). To date, it has not been enacted, but last summer, the city did go on a spree issuing fines for infractions including sunbathing in a bikini, making coffee under a historic bridge and pushing scooters through a crowded plaza.