It’s been called the Game of Thrones effect. This year, Iceland expects to host 2.4 million tourists, most searching for the landscapes of ice and fire that served as backdrops for the universally successful TV series. However, such record-breaking numbers are taking a toll on the island’s culture and protected landmarks.
This year, the Skógafoss waterfall was added to the Environmental Agency of Iceland’s ‘red list’ of endangered sites. The landmark’s proximity to the capital and only highway mean that its walkways and grass areas are being trampled to mud, threatening the ecological integrity.
It’s not alone – the waterfall joins six other popular but sensitive areas, including the eutrophic lake of Mývatn and the hot springs of Geysir. A new addition to the ‘orange list’ – areas in potential danger – is Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Previously, these natural attractions received most visitors during the summer months. However, the tourist season has now extended to the winter and with this level of year-round visitor pressure, even the mightiest are falling.
While Iceland embraced tourism after the crippling depression of 2008, there are indicators that the island has reached a tipping point. Locals are weary of visitors’ disregard for protective fencing, their ‘you-only-live-once’ attitude towards dangerous beaches, and the rise in forbidden off-road driving. The number of tourists has exploded by more than 1,000 per cent in 20 years to numbers that far exceed the Icelandic population of 340,000. Because most visitors stay in the capital of Reykjavik (pictured right), the lucrative holiday rental market is pricing Icelanders out of homes.
The island is now considering caps to limit visitors to small sites, while encouraging them to seek out under-visited sites in the northeast. ‘The mass concentration in the southwest corner is the challenge,’ says Professor Edward Huijbens of the Icelandic Tourism Research Centre. For him, the main thing that needs to be done is to ‘mend a disarticulated transport system. There is no obvious public transport link, no domestic flights and no rail connection.’ A more preventative measure is the increase in tax being added to tourist ventures, from the current 11 per cent up to 21 per cent, as of July 2018.
This was published in the August 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.