Increased tourism in Iceland has its good sides – and its bad sides. What is it that Icelanders hate most about tourism in Iceland? What makes a ‘bad tourist’ and how can you be a ‘good tourist’?
Recently there has been a massive tourism boom in Iceland. With the Icelandic currency plummeting after the bank crash in 2008 it suddenly became much cheaper for foreigners to visit our beautiful country.
First of all, let me stress that this has in many ways been positive! The tourism sector has for example grown a lot and many jobs have been created, helping the country get out of the recession. There are also a lot more people in town, making Reykjavík and other towns feel really lively and fun. Unfortunately though, to every upside there is a downside.
Of course, Icelanders don’t hate tourists (Iceland has actually been voted the friendliest country to visit in the world!) but since tourism has grown so fast in Iceland rapid changes have been happening in our society. And with the number of tourists increasing, the number of ‘bad tourists’ in amongst the crowd of ‘good tourists’ increases as well. And for some reason, people always like to focus on what’s going wrong instead of what’s going well so the newspapers are filled with what’s going wrong these days.
So here is a list of the worst things associated with the Icelandic tourism boom. Hopefully this article will enlighten you on the do's and don'ts in Iceland.
Iceland, and perhaps Reykjavík in particular, has become known for being a party place. Reykjavík's nightlife is notorious and we do indeed encourage people to check out the great nightlife.
Iceland has also been known for having beautiful women for many years, often a reason for many men to come to the country and 'try their luck' with them. But note that Iceland is the most gender equal country in the world! This equality means that the women are strong and independent - and don't want to be regarded as a piece of meat. Feminism is actually very strong in Iceland, so they most definitely don't like to feel objectified!
This combination of pretty women and hardcore nightlife seems to be somewhat incomprehensible to some tourists that come to Iceland looking for a crazy party place, something in the likes of Ibiza, where there's music blaring 24/7 and people partying on the streets. Foreigners on stag and hen do's sometimes come to Iceland, thinking it's normal behaviour to be drunk on the streets in the middle of the day (which it is not).
As an example, the other day I was waiting for a take-away lunch in a café (that turns into a bar/nightclub during late nights and weekends), surrounded by people of all ages (including kids) when in stormed a few loud and brassy tourists that ordered shots and outrageously flirted with the locals. They even bought shots for a couple of girls (that were having coffee), the girls declined and were visibly uncomfortable when they persisted on talking to them, until they eventually left.
The guys were probably very decent guys but they were really bad at reading their surroundings. In Iceland it's just as likely that girls hit on guys as it is for guys to hit on girls - but it's more likely if you stay classy, charming and respectful!
Don't harass people or show them disrespect.
If you are coming to Iceland on a stag do, you should plan your trip around fun activities and nature instead of binge drinking. There is plenty to choose from such as river rafting, snorkeling, glacier hiking or snowmobiling.
Maybe this confusion has something to do with Iceland's relaxed attitude towards nudity and sex - best portrayed with the recent #FreeTheNipple campaign, that is in fact fighting for more equality amongst the sexes.
There's nothing wrong with having a few beers and striking up conversation with the locals - but we recommend soaking in the nature and the culture in the daytime and leave most of the drinking and partying to evenings and weekends. And obviously treat people honestly and with respect!
Photo by Pavel Brodsky
A number of travellers have been found camping at parking lots or in residential areas lately. It’s illegal to camp at someone’s private property (without permission) as well as camping within city borders outside of designated camping areas.
Camping areas in Iceland are generally cheap (around 1000-1500 ISK per person), sometimes even free, and provide minimal services such as bathrooms, showers and cooking facilities – as well as having a person looking after the area and cleaning it.
Do camp at designated camping areas or make sure you are not camping illegally!
Those people that have been camping (illegally) in public places (such as on children’s school grounds) have left the area a lot worse for wear, full of rubbish and even human waste!
If you are camping, make sure you are at a campsite (they can be found all over the country!) and not on someone's private property - you wouldn't want random people camping in your garden or outside your office, would you?
Photo by Gilles Desjardins
This sounds like a joke, right? Unfortunately, it’s true.
There have been a number of news reports about people that for some reason decide not to go to public bathrooms and instead do their business outside in the nature (or on the side of houses!), often not cleaning up after themselves or even hiding their ‘leftovers’. This also goes hand in hand with camping in areas that have no bathroom facilities.
The travel industry has grown so rapidly that there are perhaps not enough public bathrooms available to people and some tourists complain over this. This is a problem that the tourism sector is very aware of and working on. Nonetheless, bathrooms are generally (or always!) free to use for people, although business with the establishments that provide them may be encouraged and is surely always appreciated. If you need the loo, just ask politely at the nearest gasoline station, bar, shop, restaurant or campsite if they have one.
Bring plastic bags with you and pick up your poo! If you are camping somewhere in the middle of nowhere and there are no bathrooms around, just as you would with a dog’s poo, pick it up into a bag and throw it away in the nearest bin. Nobody comes to Iceland to look at toilet paper flying around, poo or even food leftovers, even if it's biodegradable, so bin your banana peel too!
Sometimes people have the best intentions but manage to do even more harm. Recently one traveller wanted to get rid of his ‘business’ and set fire to the paper he used to wipe his bottom, as he had read that was the best way to get rid of your toilet paper. Unfortunately though, he’d done his business in amongst very dry and delicate moss, which caught fire.
Don’t start any open fires in the wild Icelandic nature!
Setting fire to your toilet paper can be tricky when it's windy (or raining or snowing) and the fire can even spread - so a much better solution is to carry small bags with you when you are in the midst of nature.
And for those that pee (or poo) on the streets or on buildings, there is just no excuse for that and if you are caught you will have to pay a fine! (No matter how drunk you are or how late at night it is!)
Photo by Daniele Buso
This problem lies with city planning or the government rather than individual travellers. The increase in tourism means that a lot of new hotels are being built in the centre of Reykjavík, sometimes replacing buildings that helped to build Reykjavík’s character and city life.
Some inhabitants feel as if the city centre is turning into a cluster of hotels and then there won’t be any attractions left for all the tourists (and locals) to enjoy in the city. Also, some of these hotels seem to be rising very fast and without giving much thought to their architectural beauty, in some people's opinions.
With the tourism boom the cost of living in Iceland is rising again. The demand for services is much higher and prices on anything to do with the tourism sector, such as accommodation, tours and restaurants are going up. As well as beer and coffee.
It is becoming more and more expensive for Icelanders to live and travel in their own country.
Iceland is a small country with a small population. The nature is wild and we like to keep it that way. Traditionally, there haven’t been any entrance fees to national parks or attractions and hardly any safety measures besides some signs and perhaps a little rope around attractions. Small and narrow dirt paths are normally sufficient to reach any waterfall or hot spring.
With increased tourism, all this is having to change. There is no infrastructure in Iceland to deal with a million tourists each year and that needs to change.
Thousands of people visit Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir each day, so wooden paths have been put up to protect the vulnerable nature in the area. This has also started happening at many other popular tourist attractions.
Maintaining these paths and looking after the area obviously costs money, so the idea of taking up a nature pass or entry fee to some (or all) attractions in the country came up, although nothing has been decided about the best way to tackle this.
People are upset about possibly having to pay for travelling around the country, as it has always been for free. Although, it will be a small price to pay to keep our nature protected.
The worst part about increased tourism in Iceland is the vandalism. Most of the vandalism is caused by people that don't know any better, so read on and be informed! Just as you wouldn't break off coral in The Great Barrier Reef, scribble your name on Stonehenge, put graffiti on the Egyptian pyramids or pick flowers at Versailles, there are a number of things you shouldn't do to Icelandic nature.
Icelanders are very proud and protective of their nature. The unspoilt nature is the biggest attraction in Iceland and Icelanders want to keep it that way. Respect our nature and we'll respect you! Here is some useful information:
Off-road driving is strictly forbidden – and punishable with heavy fines. Driving off-road damages the delicate nature and it can take decades for the environment to recover - even if it's 'just sand'!
The Icelandic moss is delicate - don't pick it up! The Icelandic moss is incredibly thick and soft and it’s tempting to lie in it – but it is also incredibly delicate and it takes hundreds of years for it to grow back. People that are unaware of that may waltz over it, kicking it up and ruining it – or even pick it up for photos! That photo opportunity means that you’ve ruined a piece of Icelandic landscape.
The most recent case saw a group of tourists picking up the moss to insulate their tents at the National Park and UNESCO heritage site Þingvellir, leaving awful eyesores in the ground!
Don't litter! This should be a given, right? Bring a plastic bag or some small container for your cigarette stubs, chewing gums, leftover food, toilet paper and your poo as well!
Don't throw coins into lakes or hot springs! There is one gorge in Þingvellir National Park called Peningagjá (Money rift) that is covered with coins from around the world, this is the only place where it is acceptable to throw coins.
Some people have thrown coins in hot springs at Geysir area, waterfalls, or the pool at Reykholt, which is basically the same as littering and spoiling the natural environment. If somebody else did it, it doesn't make it OK for you to do it too.
Don't make cairns! You can find old, big, well made cairns in the countryside, made for people to find their way from hill to hill when hiking in thick fog. These old cairns are easily distinguishable from small, tourist made cairns.
Small cairns in groups are just made by uninformed travellers and ruin the land underneath. The photo above shows an area that used to be green and is now mostly brown. The area had been cleared by local people but the cairns sprung up again in just a few hours. If you see one, kick it down instead of making your own!
Don't jeopardize Icelandic nature or historical places for art! Recently the artist Marco Evaristti used the geyser Strokkur for his ‘artwork’ and put red (fruit) dye in the hot-spring.
The nation was divided but a lot of people were furious over this stint (although the dye was apparently all natural and didn’t harm the environment, there are no traces left of the colour now, to my knowledge). He was arrested and got a fine but left the country without paying it.
There was also a recent graffiti spray painting on a plane wreck on the sands in the south of Iceland. Although it's not a part of the nature, this wreck is beloved by people as it looks so dramatic in its location and offers great photo opportunities.
And another artist, Julian von Bismarck, had a gallery exhibition where Icelandic nature had been spraypainted with the words 'crater' and 'lava' for example. People saw the graffiti and wondered who had done it - and the culprit was only found by accident as an Icelandic man went to his gallery exhibition in Berlin.
Hopefully you've learned more about how to treat Icelandic nature from this article. Make sure you prepare yourself for the country by reading up on it and dress according to the weather, don't get lost in the nature (and need to get one of the rescue squads to come and save you)!
If you feel like you need more tips about what you should and shouldn't do in Iceland, read our article about the dumbest things to do in Iceland and how to pack for Iceland. And feel free to give us tips on what we shouldn't do in your home country!