There has been a lot appearing in the press in recent months about curtailing the number of tourists visiting certain places. Venice is putting limits in place for cruise ships. Amsterdam is curbing private rentals in the city. Bruges is limiting overseas promotion of the city and cruise ship numbers. Barcelona residents have demonstrated some hostility towards visitors. Norway stopped advertising travel to the country entirely.
This is pretty much inevitable, especially in the age of social media and viral posts. And when tourism in an area includes package holidays, cheap flights and cruise ships, it’s likely numbers will already be out of control, and perhaps not always the types of visitors that cities are hoping to attract. In some cases the number of annual visitors to popular cities is up to 20 times the number of residents and it’s understandable that locals may be irritated. The measures put in place by these cities is all to try and prevent, or limit, the “Disneyfication” of the local area, where residents are driven out and streets become play areas for tourists.
After the 2008 financial crash and the near-catastrophic impact this had on Iceland’s banks and its economy, the genius idea was hatched to make Reykjavik an easy stopover for Iceland Air flights between Europe and North America. This gave visitors a chance to stay in Iceland for a few days with no extra flight cost and some time to explore a beautiful country. Tourism boomed. The growth in tourist numbers was double digits in some years, and Iceland, or Reykjavik, to be more precise, now falls into the same category as the likes of Venice and Barcelona with the number of annual visitors exceeding the resident population several times over.
I’m still torn when it comes to Reykjavik. Iceland is a beautiful country, but the trip (and most people do seem to have a near-identical trip when they visit the capital region) is almost a Disneyland type experience. The city is mobbed with tourists. The Golden Circle and South Coast routes are rammed with huge coaches filled with massive tour groups. It’s almost a box-ticking exercise in many cases. You have to see x, y and z then return to the busy tourist haunts in the evening. I’ve had some weird experiences when talking about Reykjavik with people, almost disdain when I didn’t wax lyrical about visiting the area and didn’t say I had the best time ever. I found Reykjavik okay, but far too busy for my liking. And the scenic areas near the city are beautiful, but part of the point of nature is to get away from crowds, not to be there in amongst queues of tourist coaches.
If I was asked about a trip to Iceland, I’d recommend avoiding Reykjavik and the Golden Circle altogether and heading to another part of the country. But then it’s a bit like New York and Times Square – for the vast majority of people, they can’t not go to Reykjavik if they visit Iceland – the stats show that. And it creates a danger, if this hasn’t happened already, that the huge numbers start to include the types of visitors that Amsterdam and Barcelona residents are complaining about. The balance between income from tourism without losing what made the area popular in the first place is a delicate one.
This is written without any hint of irony and I fully appreciate there is always the risk of sounding like a massive arsehole when talking about tourism as, like anyone else who travels, a tourist. I’ve had a couple of trips to Iceland and have seen many of the stops on the Golden Circle. I have enjoyed the scenery without necessarily enjoying being there as one of many hundred at the time. And the same goes for other places mentioned earlier: like so many others who travel, I’m part of the tourist stats for Amsterdam, Bruges, and some of the other theme-park-like old towns like Heidelberg, Tallinn. They are great to see in one sense, but being in amongst the huge, almost-endless crowds of visitors gets pretty tiresome. I guess I’m also quite happy to say when a trip I take isn’t that great. Not every trip is great, and that’s fine.
Crowds aside, when numbers boom, infrastructure tends to improve as part of the growth. Part of what I’ve enjoyed most about travel is having to figure it out, sometimes through a bit of a struggle. Things like being the only English-speaker on an overnight train and having to, somehow, talk with people about tickets, food, drinks, stops. Having to navigate an underground when the station names are written in a different alphabet (I felt a bit sad when I read the Moscow underground was going to include signs in English). Having to get through a more challenging border crossing. Having to piece together a route through flying/trains/buses/walking to get to the middle of nowhere, and taking time to get there. That’s fun for me. When it’s in bigger crowds and things are too easy, it often lacks the buzz that I enjoy from travel. I don’t get that kind of excitement when I visit Reykjavik, Tallinn, Amsterdam…
Most of my trips to Reykjavik have been as a one-night stopover to fly elsewhere for connecting flights – most notably to Greenland. It isn’t like I have a great deal of choice for that. I wouldn’t fancy having a longer stay in the city at the moment, and the stopover generally consists of a pizza at the pizza place with no name, a beer at Mikkeller, and then up early the next day for the flight. Only this time, the pizza place with no name had changed and no longer served pizzas, and the Mikkeller tap list was a bit ‘meh’. Still, it was only one night.
Speaking of tourist numbers, Reykjavik City was the busiest I have seen it. There was a huge group of people heading on the Ilulissat flight, another place which looks to be seeing a relatively big increase in visitor numbers. The Narsarsuaq flight was quieter.
The Air Iceland Connect place included a journal in the seat pockets for visitors to write messages about their trip to Iceland. Here are a couple of my favourites.