I’ve tried a couple of times to write something about Reykjavik and found it difficult. This was my third visit to Iceland, after a long weekend in 2015 which was ruined by some awful weather and a stopover either side of a trip to Greenland in 2016.
It doesn’t need me to say that Iceland is a beautiful country. Any landscape which has snow-peaked mountains, volcanoes, hot springs and geysers, a battered coastline and areas where you can travel for hours without seeing anyone, it makes for a beautiful and relaxing place. But these days Iceland is a tourist hot spot – insanely popular – and with that comes some not-so-good things.
Some stories popped up over the past few months setting out with no ambiguity the reaction of a large portion of locals in Venice and Barcelona have towards tourists. In Barcelona’s case, this is a city which has nearly 20 times more tourists each year than it has residents. For Venice, the locals complain about the gigantic cruise ships and bus tours, dropping off people who don’t spend much, who crowd the tiny walkways and canals.
Having this level of visitors to any city, if not closely controlled, inevitably means a change in the make-up of the city centre – catering for people visiting for a couple of nights rather than the people who live there. It means locals moving out and renting out their city accommodation. It means local people can’t get a moment to enjoy their city. I often thought that about New York when I was there. If you’re a New Yorker then you will have to constantly find somewhere new to visit, somewhere new to eat or relax, always trying to stay ahead of the massive crowds that have swamped Times Square, Central Park, the Rockefeller Plaza, the West Village…
This kind of problem is going to increase as tourist numbers increase and we’re all part of the problem. Whether you’re a backpacker or someone who trundles a wheelie case behind them, a “tourist” or a “traveller”, we’re all part of this.
So why am I writing this? Well Reykjavik is starting to go very much in the same direction as Venice and Barcelona. After Iceland’s struggle during the last financial crash, the country opened up more to tourism and part of this was the excellent idea from Iceland Air to allow for a long stopover for anyone travelling between Europe and North America via Keflavik. Tourism boom.
Central Reykjavik around Laugavegur and Hverfisgata, the imposing Hallgrimskirkja right down to the waterfront and the old town, it’s rammed with tourists. That is pretty much all you’ll see. And naturally the city starts to gear towards catering for visitors more.
Noting that visitors may only be there for a few days, Iceland tourism (unless you go it alone) tends to focus on a few specific things: the “Golden Circle”, the South Coast, whale watching, maybe a glacier walk, and the Northern Lights. Each is packaged into a trip and the big bus tours make their way around this part of the island. It’s basically selling a short “Iceland experience” to the vast majority of people who visit.
And the number of people visiting Reykjavik is booming. In 2016 tourists outnumbered locals by nearly 14-to-1 across the year. If it continues to increase then inevitably locals will feel overwhelmed by visitors, and that can’t end well. See Venice. See Barcelona.
It is clear to see why Iceland is such a popular place to visit. Iceland Air has made it an incredibly easy place to visit and it’s a country where the natural beauty will always attract people to it. Iceland has a huge amount to see, and if you can switch off from the crowds of other visitors then it’s well worth it.
I feel like a hypocrite writing this. I am a hypocrite writing this, having visited Reykjavik recently despite thinking this way. It was a few days and I took in waterfalls, hot springs, the fantastic coast, spent time in howling wind and horizontal snow as well as lovely spring sunshine. The Northern Lights made an appearance for all of 20 seconds (after a long drive and a two-hour wait) but that’s nature.
Generally I tend to opt for less-busy places but after a failed first trip and a flying second visit, this kind of felt like my first proper trip to Iceland.