Overtourism in Iceland threatens the environment


More than 2.2 million travellers visited Iceland in 2017, a country with fewer than 350,000 residents. That equates to six tourists per resident. The rapid increase in tourism has brought numerous economic benefits to Iceland, but has also highlighted a natural environment at risk, according to a recent report published by the Ministry of Tourism, Industry and Innovation of Iceland.

In 2010, two years after the banking crisis, Iceland received less than half a million tourists. Seven years later, this figure has quadrupled and Iceland’s capital Reykjavik is the seventh worst European city in terms of overtourism.

The recession in 2008 prompted the crash of the housing market in Iceland and tripled unemployment, but a drop in prices also encouraged travellers to visit. Tourism is cited as having helped the country recover from its financial doldrums and contributed about 8 percent  to GDP in 2017.

Another cause of overtourism cites Icelandair’s decision to encourage passengers to make a stopover in the country for up to seven nights on any flight across the Atlantic at no additional cost. Cruise ships are also popular, with port authorities are expecting as many as 144,000 passengers to disembark at Reykjavik harbour, according to Iceland Magazine.

Yet it is estimated that growth will slow – while there was a 40 percent increase in arrivals in 2016, a forecast published by Iceland´s Arion Bank estimates growth will slow to seven percent in 2018 and five percent in 2019. Even lower growth is predicted by Inspired by Iceland, the official tourism information site, who said that “numbers for 2018 indicate that the growth will be close to the average tourism growth worldwide which is around 4-5 percent”.

A threat to the environment?

In April 2018, a report published by the Minister of Tourism, Industry and Innovation said that the increase in tourism is causing damage to the environment. The report said places like the promontory of Dyrhólaey, the Dverghamrar basalt columns and Gullfoss in the Golden Circle are in danger. The popular hiking trail to Reykjadalur, which is deemed damaged by overtourism, was closed by the Environment Agency for a few weeks.

Iceland´s government also announced a safety alert for travellers to avoid popular destinations  such as Geysir and the Skógafoss. The report also attempts to find ways to minimise and prevent further damage, while ensuring a good travelling experience for tourists.

“There is no doubt that this rapid growth of visitor arrivals over the last decade has put increased strain on infrastructure, nature and society”, said a spokesprson for Inspired by Iceland. The site says tourist satisfaction in general remains high and local attitudes towards tourism also remain positive.

Better distribution to tackle overtourism

One of the main causes of overtourism in Iceland is the uneven distribution of tourists. In 2015, the government established The Icelandic Route Development fund to support direct international flights to other airports like Akureyri to encourage better tourist distribution.

“The main reason is that almost all tourists enter the country through Keflavík airport in the Southwest”, said Inspired by Iceland’s spokesperson.

In recent years, authorities have also focused on promoting less visited areas. Average room occupancy outside of the capital region has grown from 33 percent in 2011 to 55 percent in 2017, according to the official tourism information site.

Some projects, such as the A-Ö of Iceland campaign, are trying to showcase the individuality of each of Iceland’s seven regions. Another initiative, the Icelandic Pledge encourages tourists to pledge to travel around Iceland in a responsible way.

Authorities are also working to spread tourism into different seasons. In 2017, 65 percent of all arrivals to Iceland were in the off season from September to May, compared to 50 percent in 2010, according to Inspired by Iceland.

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