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Iceland’s Mass Tourism Problems

Natsha
Published Jun 25, 2017

Iceland is fast becoming an extremely popular tourist destination. Around 1.76 million people visited Iceland back in 2016 according to the Icelandic news agency RÚV, an increase from 1.26 million back in 2015. With the number of tourists still predicted to be on the rise, to a country with a population of 330,000 people, mass tourism is impacting both locals and foreign travelers looking to enjoy the country’s unique landscapes.

The accident and fatality rate of foreign visitors is increasing each year from road accidents and the disregard of warning signs at dangerous sites. A large number of foreign visitors also exhibited destructive behaviours from littering to vandalizing natural landscapes.

Top 3 activities to book in Iceland

Toilet and littering problems

A cigarette butt was left by Gódafoss waterfall, a popular photo stop.

Plan your trip properly and timely so that you do not need to go on a bathroom break during a long drive. Some travellers think it is ok to do their business out in the open, giving other people the same idea. In some places, there is a build-up of used toilet paper and other things. It is unpleasant for both locals and other travellers.

Recently there has even been problems with inconsiderate travellers doing their business in front of people’s homes, in their gardens and in public parking lots. Hopefully, this is not a norm in your country, so don’t do it in someone else’s garden just because you are in a foreign country.

With the increase of people also comes littering. Cigarette butts can be found in many tourist attractions, but recently there was a major incidence in the Snæfellsjökull National Park where a cigarette butt caused dry moss to catch fire.

Be considerate and think of others. You want to enjoy pristine nature, so you should clean up after yourself and not leave any rubbish around so the next person can enjoy it as well.

See our full list of recommended hotels in Iceland and also compare the prices with airbnbs in Iceland

Road etiquette

In Iceland, cars are driven on the right side of the road. If you are unfamiliar with right hand side driving, take extra precaution. The Ring Road or highway number 1 is the road that circles around the whole country. Although a long road, it has only two lanes. Therefore, if you are tempted to stop somewhere to take photographs, it is better to find a side road. Stopping at the side of the road tends to draw attention to other travellers who will want to stop as well to see if there is anything interesting. This can create a hazardous area with groups of people on the side of the road, crossing back and forth between two sides.

The maximum speed limit is 90 km per hour (almost 60 mph) on the highway, 80 km per hour (about 50 mph) on gravel roads and 50 km per hour (30 mph) in urban areas. By Icelandic law, everyone inside the car, including passengers, are required to wear seatbelts.

Off-road driving is illegal in Iceland. Unlike some tourism advertising posters and images, not only is off-road driving not allowed, you can be charged a big fine for it. Much of the country’s landscape might seem barren, but it is very fragile and will take many years to recover when damaged. To keep the landscapes looking pristine from tire tracks or trampled grasslands, travellers should keep to the roads.

Many accidents are also caused by some travellers being inexperienced at driving in icy conditions or on gravel roads. Whether you are travelling in winter or summer, always check the Icelandic Meteorological Office’s website for updates on weather and road closures. Some foreign travellers ignore the warnings and either get stuck on closed roads or during severe weather conditions and need to be rescued.

See our full list of recommended hotels in Iceland and also compare the prices with airbnbs in Iceland

Defacing nature

A tourist photographing the landscape.

While this is a worldwide problem, Iceland has been hit pretty hard with travellers defacing nature because of the lack of supervision due to the land’s vastness. From tourists to artists, the country’s landscape has been sprayed with graffiti, moss-covered ground ripped up to write down random messages, to people stealing naturally formed crystal rocks from a cave.

No one is going to get famous, at least not in a good way, for defacing nature. This again has to do with your own conscience and not ruining the view and places for everybody else who visits the country.

See our full list of recommended hotels in Iceland and also compare the prices with airbnbs in Iceland

No horsing around

Icelandic horses are very photogenic and popular with tourists.

It is no surprise why travellers get drawn to the Icelandic horses; they are small, friendly and fluffy. Many people want to stop by the roadside to pet them and feed them. Little do they realise that what they are doing could greatly alter the horses’ behaviours.

Although they are left in big fields, the horses are not wild; they all have owners. By feeding the horses, you are encouraging them to associate the presence of people with treats. This will make them more difficult to train and some horses will become aggressive towards other horses because it doesn’t want to share treats, whether people are offering them or not. Imagine some strangers spoiling your pets and you are left to deal with the aftermath. Unfortunately, all too often, tour guides are also responsible by parking busloads of tourists next to a field of horses and encouraging people to feed and pet the horses to create a memorable fun experience for their guests. What people fail to realise is that horses that are deemed too difficult to deal with are often put down, so essentially, all the feeding can lead to the animal’s demise.

If you want the opportunity to interact with Icelandic horses there are plenty of horseback riding tour companies where you can spend time getting to know the fluffy creatures. If you like horses but are afraid to ride, some tour companies, such as Eldhestar, even provide accommodation right next to their stables.

See our full list of recommended hotels in Iceland and also compare the prices with airbnbs in Iceland

Illegal camping

Camp ground in Landmannalaugar.

Some travellers are willing to buy flight tickets to Iceland but they are unwilling to pay for a camping fee. While some tourists have been caught camping illegally in National Parks, the more surprising camping incidents take place in urban areas. This includes travellers setting up a tent in someone’s garden and school ground while using the surrounding bushes as toilets. A small town had to lock up its church’s doors after travellers were found to be camping and cooking inside the church. Most recently, the famous Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik is considering charging fees for people wanting to use its restrooms, as some travellers have been sneaking in and using the place as a free hostel.

With the average camping fee between 2,000 ISK or approx. 19.00 USD to 2,700 ISK or 26 USD during peak season (some place offer lower rates depending on the length of your stay), camping on proper campgrounds should not be an issue. If your budget covers the flight tickets but not the camping fee, then maybe you should consider re-adjusting your budget.

See our full list of recommended hotels in Iceland and also compare the prices with airbnbs in Iceland

The warnings are there for your own safety

A sign warning travelers of the danger from falling off from a cliff's edge

A number of foreign travellers get in trouble because they ignore warning signs and fences. It is without a doubt that Iceland’s nature is very photogenic but it is important to keep in mind that it is unpredictable. Getting too close may cost you your health and even life.

There are many accidents ranging from travellers burning themselves from the hot steam at Geysir when going over the safety ropes to ignoring weather warnings and going off hiking in inappropriate clothing and passing away from the cold. However, the most famous site with many accidents is located in southern Iceland. You might have seen a photograph of a black beach with rocks jutting out of the sea on many social media sites. This is Reynisfjara Beach. It is heavily visited each year with many travellers keen to get close to the water for a photo. Little do they know that a number of foreign travellers have been swept out to sea by the waves and some did not make it. Despite the clear warning sign before you reach the beach, people still ignore the dangers. Even on a fine day, one or two rogue waves can sweep high up onto the beach. The water there is deep and the undercurrent will pull you further out.

Don’t ignore the warning signs, they are there for a reason. If you plan to go on a hike, check the weather forecast and be prepared. Don’t underestimate the weather as it can change quickly and on some hiking paths, there is little shelter along the way. Always inform someone that you are going out hiking, whether you are going alone or as a group. That way if something happens and you are unable to reach out for help, someone can get help for you if you fail to return. The emergency service number is 112 should you get into a dangerous situation.

See our full list of recommended hotels in Iceland and also compare the prices with airbnbs in Iceland

Think about the locals

You’re in Iceland on a short, enjoyable trip, so encountering a few misbehaving tourists is perhaps bearable but imagine if you have to bear with it every day. It is up to the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (ICE-SAR) to help travellers in need whether it was a genuine accident or through reckless behaviour. Please bear in mind that those working for the rescue service are not paid, they work on a volunteer basis. The upkeep of the organisation is not supported by the government but through donations from the public. That means that when something happens, they have to take their time away from their family to go rescue someone, risking their own lives.

Whether it is acts of vandalism, inconsiderate behaviours or careless accidents, don’t put the burden on others to clean up after you. Be considerate and plan things ahead. Don’t be a bad tourist.

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A bit of a globetrotter, Natsha has spent many years living in a number of different countries. Her love for travelling and photography grew over those years. After finishing a BA in Iceland,...Read more

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