Last winter, I set out on an otherwise unremarkable February day to visit a 15-meter-high basalt stack jutting out of the Greenland Sea. Hvítserkur is located just off the remote Skagafjörður peninsula in the north of Iceland. Loosely resembling the head of a troll (its two large “holes” lie against the water like eyes), Hvítserkur is a notable attraction in this region of Iceland, and is also particularly difficult to get to; one must drive along a potholed, dirt road that winds sharply around vertigo-inducing seacliffs for close to twenty miles in order to reach it. You’re hopeless without a four-wheel. Eventually, you come to a worn, muddy clearing (parking lot) and must walk another ten minutes through an even muddier pathway until the magnificence appears out of the oceanic abyss.

Photo by author

When I visited Hvítserkur that February, I wasn’t expecting to see many people — winter in Iceland is notoriously harsh, cold, and dark. I was wrong. The parking lot was packed with cars lined up door-to-door and tourists waddling out onto the rugged terrain in their brick-like hiking boots and winter jackets in mint condition. Cameras were everywhere — around necks, on selfie sticks, on tripods, attached to backpacks. I heard Chinese in my left ear and Italian in my right. And just like that, whatever magic Hvítserkur may or may not have represented dissolved into the turbulent, foamy sea that lay right beneath its wet and watchful eyes.

From 2008 to 2011, Iceland experienced a financial crisis. That’s putting it lightly — the country was gutted, banks crashed, the unemployment rate soared, and the economy plummeted. But for a country full of Viking descendants who deals with regular hurricanes but calls them “storms” and eats ram testicles for fun, a little financial “crisis” was the last thing they’d let cramp their style. By the time 2012 dawned, Iceland had made a remarkable comeback that, in large part, was due to its booming tourism industry.

Today, I’m sitting in the only eatery — a quaint little cafe edged against the sea — in the small northerly town of Skagaströnd, home to less than 500 inhabitants, including myself. That number is dropping, though, as Icelanders continue relocating to the capital. Just this autumn, Skagaströnd’s school downsized from two buildings to one, and the town also did away with its annual summer solstice celebration as a result of low turnout the previous year. It would be difficult to deny that Skagaströnd is slowly turning into a ghost town. There is, however, something keeping it from the pits of desolation: tourists.

Before long, a group of visitors walk into the cafe. They’re artists from the local artist residency — one of many throughout Iceland — and have just arrived to town. One of them mistakes me for the barista who, at the moment, is nowhere to be found. “I’m not sure where anyone is,” I admit to a woman with a gleam in her eyes that I’ve come to recognize as a sort of drunkenness induced by Iceland’s spectacular landscape. That is, after all, what millions of tourists come here for.

Iceland or Disneyland?

By the end of 2017, it is predicted that over two million tourists will have visited Iceland. This number puts the country’s population, 334,252, to shame. While many Icelanders are delighted by the surge in visitors and recognize tourism as the saving grace that pulled their economy out of the muck, others are not so keen; the reality is that the country is in need of a better system to deal with the millions of tourists, and the government has, to some degree, failed at setting this up.

In an attempt to accommodate the millions of tourists in Iceland, for example, restroom charges were implemented at many of the country’s numerous natural attractions. But tourists, already feeling the pinch of their wallet from Iceland’s outrageously high tax rate and import charges, silently rebelled. And thus began a very dirty story. It wasn’t long before “no pooping” signs were posted around the countryside.

Though Icelanders are generally extremely accepting of tourists, there is a fine line between what is and is not acceptable tourist behavior. Unfortunately, many tourists come to Iceland with the idea that the country is like a theme park (or a toilet) and all of its citizens just parka-wearing entertainers. As a result, there is no shortage of stories of tourists behaving oddly. Rumor even has it that a man from Canada walked into someone’s home in Reykjavík and sat at their dinner table, thinking that it was a museum. This sort of behavior, while amusing at first, over time contributes to feelings of resentment towards tourists and a heightened urgency to devise a sustainable plan to deal with them.

Growing pains

The changes brought on by mass tourism are visible everywhere in Iceland. Downtown Reykjavík (otherwise known as “Reykjavík 101”), for example, has recently undergone a major transformation because of it; real estate prices have skyrocketed and private rental companies have taken over whole buildings, effectively wiping out the majority of 101’s Icelandic population. Today, one can’t walk down Laugavegur (101’s main drag) without seeing a tourist. In fact, it’s far rarer to actually witness an Icelander there. Shop and restaurant owners have quickly adapted to this change by eliminating Icelandic menus or renaming their stores with English words. Even Iceland’s regional airline, Flugfélag Íslands, adopted a similar mentality by shedding their Icelandic nomenclature for the more palatable “Air Iceland Connect”. The results of these changes, while reflective of Iceland’s all-embracing attitude, are also somewhat dissociating; they’ve left many residents feeling disregarded. An Icelandic friend once said to me as we weaved through the masses of tourists along Laugavegur, “I feel like I’m a foreigner in my own country.”

Crowds in Reykjavik
Photo: Luigi Mengato

Icelanders aren’t the only ones feeling the effects of the country’s tourism. For tourists, the ease and accessibility that has resulted from Iceland’s visitor-focused mindset comes at a price. While being able to walk into practically any restaurant and find an English menu may eliminate a lot of the stress that comes with traveling, it also takes away from the thrill of language and cultural barriers that many travelers see as essential parts of their journeys — what is left to discover if everything is already accessible? And for a country whose lure lies within its desolation and geographic obscurity, walking down a Reykjavík street whose crowds rival those of Times Square is a bit of a non-sequitur after flipping through your in-flight magazine’s glossy photos of the country’s unpeopled waterfalls and turquoise hot springs.

But there is a positive side to all of these changes. Before the tourism surge, Reykjavík 101 was empty. “Now there is life,” a particularly zesty in-law once explained to me. “You can walk down the street and see people now. Before, there was no one.” When I asked this in-law whether she minded the fact that the streets were now crowded with tourists, not Icelanders, she shrugged her shoulders. “We Icelanders are so few. Some people is better than no people, whoever they are.”

People power

Iceland is at a turning point. With more and more of the country’s small population moving to Reykjavík, rural towns and villages, like Skagaströnd, are slowly becoming obsolete. It’s “sink or swim” mode for a lot of these places, whose economies are largely dependent on tourism. Artist residencies, like the one in Skagaströnd, therefore serve vital purposes for small communities that extend beyond monetary gain; they serve as a form of “specialized tourism”, offering visitors with particular interests unique experiences and up-close-and-personal views of another kind of Iceland. It’s a win-win situation for both residents and tourists, but this delicate equilibrium must be kept in check or Iceland’s small towns may risk losing the very solitude and tranquillity these places pride themselves on.

Back at the cafe, I watch the artists dig out their cameras and sketchbooks and have a go at the surrounding scenery. I’m in a strange position as both outsider and resident, as foreigner and inhabitant; I find myself both wanting the untouched, undiscovered nook of Iceland I’d so passionately sought after (and found) when I moved here two years ago, and a livelier, diversified, more populated place. And I think: perhaps this is how Icelanders feel, simultaneously aware that tourism is a valuable asset to their economy and apprehensive in the face of the change it’s bringing. Finally, the barista arrives. Her cheeks are rosied from the autumn wind. Seeing me, seeing the artists, she asks in her nearly impeccable English, “What can I get you?”

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