Discover how tourism in Iceland has affected the local population. Although travelers have provided Icelanders with many benefits, they've also caused many problems. Find out what Icelanders hate most about tourists and why they're so friendly to visitors despite these problems. Learn what you should avoid doing in Iceland.
Iceland has experienced an ongoing tourism boom sparked by its currency plummeting after the bank crash in 2008, which suddenly made it much cheaper for foreigners to visit our beautiful country.
First of all, let me stress that this has been positive in many ways. With this growth, many new tourism jobs have been created, helping Iceland get out of the recession and greatly benefiting the people of Iceland. There are also many more people, making Reykjavik and other cities feel lively and fun. Unfortunately, though, for every upside, there's a downside.
You may be wondering whether Icelanders are friendly or if they hate American tourists. Of course, Icelanders don't hate tourists. Iceland has been voted the friendliest country to visit in the world! Still, since tourism has grown so fast in Iceland, rapid changes happened very quickly to our society, and not all of them have been good.
With the overall number of Iceland tourists increasing, the number of bad tourists amid the crowd of good tourists has grown, too. Since people tend to focus on what's wrong, the newspapers are filled with stories about Iceland's tourism problems.
So here is a list of the worst things associated with the Icelandic tourism boom. Hopefully, this article will enlighten you on Iceland's dos and don'ts.
Iceland, and perhaps Reykjavik in particular, has a reputation for being a great place to party. Reykjavik’s nightlife is notorious, and we do indeed encourage people to check out the great nightlife.
For many years, Iceland has been known for its beautiful women, inspiring many men to visit 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 very strong in Iceland, and the objectification of women is heavily frowned upon.
This combination of pretty women and hardcore nightlife seems somewhat incomprehensible to some tourists who come to Iceland looking for a crazy party place like Ibiza, where music blares 24/7 and people party in the streets. Foreigners on bachelor and bachelorette party trips sometimes come to Iceland thinking it's normal to be drunk on the streets in the middle of the day (it's not).
As an example, the other day, I was waiting for a to-go 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 who ordered shots and flirted outrageously with the locals. They even bought shots for a couple of girls (who were having coffee). The girls declined and were visibly uncomfortable when the tourists continued talking to them until the group eventually left.
The guys were probably very decent guys, but they were terrible at reading the room. In Iceland, it's just as likely for girls to hit on guys as 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 for a bachelor party, consider planning your trip around fun activities and nature instead of binge drinking. There are 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, which is fighting for more equality amongst the sexes.
There's nothing wrong with having a few beers and striking up a conversation with the locals—but we recommend soaking up the nature and culture in the daytime and leaving most of the drinking and partying to evenings and weekends. And, obviously, treat people honestly and respectfully!
From late September to March, we can see one of the most beautiful wonders of nature, the northern lights. These dancing (mostly) green lights in the sky can be seen on nights when there are no clouds.
The less light pollution there is, the better you'll be able to appreciate their beauty. We love that tourists in Iceland come to see the aurora borealis. We don't love it when they get distracted looking for them while driving. That can be dangerous both for the driver and whoever is driving on the same road as them. It's not uncommon for some travelers to crash or accidentally drive off-road, damaging their rental car and the local environment.
Whenever the lights are intense, you can see them. There's no need to be on the road looking for them, neglecting road safety and other cars. If the northern lights are out, you'll see them.
Photo by Pavel Brodsky
Some travelers have been found camping in parking lots and residential areas. As you might imagine, it's illegal to camp in Iceland on someone's private property without permission, and the same applies to camping within city borders outside of designated camping areas.
Camping areas in Iceland are usually cheap (around 7.50 USD to 11.50 USD per person), sometimes even free. They provide essential services such as bathrooms, showers, and cooking facilities. There's also someone looking after the area and making sure it's kept clean.
Do camp at designated camping areas, or make sure you are not camping illegally.
Those people camping illegally in public places, such as on children's school grounds, have left the area a lot worse for wear, full of trash and even human waste. If you are camping, make sure you're at a campsite, which can be found all over the country. Don't try to camp on 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 several news reports about people who decide not to go to public bathrooms for some reason. Instead, they do their business in nature or outside private houses and buildings. As you would guess, they often don't clean up after themselves or hide their "leftovers."
This also goes hand in hand with camping in areas with no bathroom facilities. The travel industry in Iceland has grown so fast that there are perhaps not enough public bathrooms available to people, and some tourists complain about this. The tourism industry is very aware of the issues—and solutions are in the works.
Nonetheless, bathrooms are always free to use. Doing business with the establishments that provide them is encouraged and always appreciated. If you need to use the toilet, just ask politely at the nearest gasoline station, bar, shop, restaurant, or campsite.
Bring plastic bags with you and pick up your poop.
If you are camping in the middle of nowhere and there are no bathrooms around, pick it up with a bag and throw it away in the nearest trash bin (just as you would do while walking your dog). Nobody comes to Iceland to marvel at left-behind poop, leftover food, or toilet paper flying around. That goes for banana peels, too (even though they're biodegradable).
Sometimes people have the best intentions but manage to do more harm than good. Recently one traveler wanted to get rid of his “business” by setting fire to the paper he used. He had read that was the best way to get rid of your toilet paper. Unfortunately, he'd done his business close to very dry and delicate moss, which caught fire.
Don't start any open fires in the wild Icelandic environment.
Setting fire to your toilet paper can be tricky when it's windy, and the fire can quickly spread. A much better solution is to carry small bags with you when you're outdoors.
And there's simply no excuse for those that urinate (or defecate) on the streets or next to buildings. If you're caught, you'll have to pay a fine, no matter how drunk you are or how late at night it is.
Public swimming is a huge part of Icelandic culture, and we take it seriously. There are several public pools in Reykjavik and elsewhere around the country. These heated pools attract a lot of Icelanders year-round, and everyone is welcome.
One important rule is that everyone must shower before getting into the pool. That doesn't mean you can shower at the hotel and come straight to the pool. Everyone has to shower completely naked when they get to the pool facility. Yes, that's right. You have to shower naked in front of a bunch of strangers.
We even have a pool attendant who will ensure no one gets into the water before showering. If you're unsure, there are instructions on how to shower and which body parts deserve special attention. You can bring your own soap, but it's usually provided.
When tourists try to get into a pool without showering—accidentally or otherwise—it will upset us. If the pool attendant catches you, they'll lead you to the shower and make sure that you shower thoroughly. You'll shower nude, but you must have your swimwear on to get into the water.
Photo by Daniele Buso
This problem lies with city planning and the government rather than individual travelers. The rapid tourism boom in Iceland means that many new hotels are being built in downtown Reykjavik, and sometimes they replace buildings that contribute to the city's character.
Some people in Iceland feel as if downtown Reykjavik is turning into a cluster of hotels, and soon there won't be any attractions left for tourists and locals to enjoy in the city. Icelanders also think that many hotels in Reykjavik are being built rapidly without considering their architectural beauty. It's not a tourist problem, but rather a city planning issue.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by the blanz. No edits were made
Historically, people in Iceland had to fight for survival, as finding food and storing it was a challenge without modern conveniences. They had to eat what they could find, so they ate sharks, sheep's heads, horses, and puffins, to name just a few unusual dishes. Eating was a matter of survival, not something they did for pleasure or curiosity.
Today, we still love our traditional Icelandic food, even though tourists may find it different. So don't criticize us for what we eat; be respectful of our culture. An excellent way to win an Icelander's respect is by trying some of our traditional dishes, like fermented shark or foal's meat.
Due to the tourism boom, the cost of living in Iceland is rising. The demand for services is much higher, and the prices for tourism services, such as accommodations, tours, and restaurants, are going up. The same applies to standard drinks like beer and coffee.
It's becoming more and more expensive for Icelanders to live and travel in their own country. We hope we won't have the same tourism problems in Iceland that we've seen in Venice or Barcelona, for example.
Iceland is a small country with a small population. Nature is wild, and we like to keep it that way—historically, there haven't been any entrance fees to national parks and other attractions. Everything was raw and real, so there were hardly any safety measures besides signs and a little rope around the attractions; narrow dirt paths were usually enough to reach any waterfall or hot spring.
With increased tourism in Iceland, all this has to change; Iceland needs infrastructure to deal with the millions of tourists that visit each year. 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 costs money, so the idea of creating a nature pass or charging an entry fee to some (or all) attractions in the country has come up. However, nothing has been decided about the best way to tackle this.
People are upset about possibly having to pay for traveling around the country, as it has always been free, even though it would be a small price to pay to protect our natural environment.
The worst thing about the growth in tourism in Iceland is the increase in vandalism.
Most vandalism is done by people who don't know any better, so read on and be informed. There are many things you shouldn't do in Iceland's natural areas. You wouldn't break off a piece of coral in the Great Barrier Reef, paint graffiti on the Great Pyramid of Giza, or pick flowers at Versailles.
The Icelandic people are very proud and protective of the natural environment. Unspoiled wild nature is the biggest attraction in Iceland, and Icelanders want to keep it that way. Respect our natural attractions, and we'll respect you!
Here are some tips for helping us to preserve our precious wild places.
Off-road driving is strictly forbidden and punishable with heavy fines. Driving off-road damages delicate ecosystems. 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. Icelandic moss is incredibly thick and soft, so it's tempting to lie in it, but it's also highly delicate, and it takes hundreds of years to grow back. People unaware of that may waltz over it, kicking it up and ruining it—or even picking it up for photos! That photo opportunity means that you've destroyed a piece of the 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 World Heritage Site at Thingvellir, leaving ugly bare spots on the ground.
Don't litter. This should be a given, right? Bring a plastic bag or some small container for your cigarette butts, chewing gum, leftover food, and toilet paper (and your poop, too!).
Don't throw coins into lakes or hot springs. There's one gorge in Thingvellir National Park called Peningagja (Money Rift) covered with coins from around the world, and this is the only place where it's acceptable to throw coins.
Some people have thrown coins in hot springs at the Geysir area, waterfalls, or the pool at Reykholt, which is the same as littering and spoiling the natural environment. Just because somebody else did it doesn't make it OK for you to do it, too.
Don't make cairns! Cairns are human-made stacks of rocks. You can find big, old, well-constructed 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 made by uninformed travelers and ruin the land underneath. The photo below shows an area that used to be green and is now mostly brown. Local people had cleared the area, 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. In 2015, artist Marco Evaristti used the Strokkur geyser for his “artwork” by putting red (fruit) dye in the hot spring.
The nation was divided, but many people were furious over this stunt, despite the dye apparently being all-natural and not harmful to the environment. There are no traces left of the color now (as far as we know!). He was arrested and received a fine but left the country without paying it, which also angered many locals.
A plane wreck on the sands in South Iceland has also been painted with graffiti. Although it's not a part of nature, this wreck is beloved by people, as it looks so dramatic in its location and offers excellent photo opportunities.
And another artist, Julian von Bismarck, had a gallery exhibition where he was showing photos of Icelandic nature that had been spray-painted with words like "crater" and "lava." People saw the graffiti and wondered who had done it. The culprit was only found by accident when 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 dressing according to the weather. We don't want you to get lost in nature (and need 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 articles 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!