Iceland: Too much of a good thing?

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Tourists flock to the Rangarping Eystra waterfall in southern Iceland.
Tourists flock to the Rangarping Eystra waterfall in southern Iceland. Photo Credit: Felicity Long
Felicity Long
Felicity Long

Typically, ministers of tourism are tasked with boosting the number of visitors to their respective countries. In Iceland, however, Thordis Kolbrun Reykfjord Gylfadottir, the new minister of tourism, industry and innovation, is the first to admit that she's chasing a runaway train.

In fact Gylfadottir, the country's first tourism minister, said her January appointment is a direct result of the spike in international visitors over the last five or six years.

The tourists, the majority arriving from the U.S., are already coming in droves without any encouragement from her office, clogging such iconic sites as the Blue Lagoon and downtown Reykjavik.

Credit IcelandAir's well-publicized stopover programs, Wow's low international pricing, successful social media campaigns and even publicity spurred by the Eyjafjallajokull
volcanic eruption in 2010, which closed airports throughout Europe but also generated interest in volcano tourism.
Generally speaking, a boost in tourism is a good thing. After all, tourism provides one-third of Iceland's economy  second only to fishing  Gylfadottir said, stressing that locals are very aware that tourism "saved us when our economy collapsed" in 2008.

That said, too much of a good thing can be, well, too much.

Her goal, Gylfadottir said, is not to cap arrivals or set quotas but rather to encourage visitors to fan out to other parts of the country, a trend that she acknowledged can't be accomplished without investment in infrastructure, especially in new roads and better developed destinations as well as "more and better activities," she said.

"The focus is on quality and service rather than on massive tourism," she said. "We want sustainable tourism. We want to protect what we have."

The notion of protecting the country from being overrun is designed to both conserve the Iceland's natural beauty and to preserve its reputation. If visitors have disappointing experiences, it would be hard to recover from those negative word-of-mouth reviews, she said.

With that in mind, the ministry is working with airlines to encourage route development to the less touristy east and west portions of the country, and they are looking into regulating how many days cruise ships can be in port.
As an example of undiscovered destinations, Gylfadottir cited another lagoon in northern Iceland called Myvatn Nature Baths that few visitors know about and which offers a high quality, geothermal bathing experience.
Of course, none of these plans imply an abandonment of the traditional sites. During my recent visit, for example, I spent several predawn hours at the famous Blue Lagoon in Grindavik, which has the added benefit of being less than 20 minutes from Keflavik airport. Thanks to a reservation system, arrivals at the lagoon are limited and staggered so that bathers can enjoy the experience in relative tranquility.

A luxury hotel at the Blue Lagoon, to be called Moss Hotel, is set to open later this year, and the country's first five-star property, the 250-room Marriott Edition Reykjavik Hotel by Ian Schrager is slated to open in 2018.
The number of hotel rooms in Reykjavik has doubled since 2000, and the number of hotel rooms in the city is expected to increase by 50% in the next two to four years.

The boom in hotels seems to be coming just in time, because, in Iceland it appears that, even if you don't build it, they will come.

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