Record and Run: The Digital Age of Icelandic Tourism Posted on January 10th, 2024 by

Online presence has morphed into an integral part of selling and experiencing tourism in the 21st Century. Since arriving in Iceland for this J-Term course, I’ve been constantly experiencing the digital age’s impact on Iceland’s tourism firsthand through observing and participating in tourism at Reykjavik’s urban landscape and the Golden Circle’s iconic natural and cultural landmarks. Pairing these experiences with readings sharing academic perspectives on tourism in Iceland, I’ve analyzed how online accessibility separates tourists’ expectations from reality and changes how they interact with significant natural and cultural sites in a way that disrespects Icelandic culture and landscapes. 

Before arriving in Iceland, I prepared expectations of what sights I would see based on images I viewed on Google of Reykjavik’s Rainbow Road or from a friend’s Instagram post at the famous Geysir. While having access to all of these images draws outsiders into Iceland’s unique urban and natural landscapes, they are all artificially manufactured representations. The photographs of natural attractions in particular are advertised as the “pure” and “untouched” wilderness where visitors can experience moments in sublime nature all to themselves. In reality, it’s themselves…and the upwards of 2 million other tourists that visit Iceland throughout the year according to a study on Iceland’s tourism sustainability published in the Scandinavian Journal of Hospitality and Tourism.

Our class visits to Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss waterfall along one of Iceland’s most traveled series of attractions made these contrasts between advertisements and reality clear. It also guided further questions to consider, such as how tourists interact with the landscape and the impact it has on fellow tourists and Icelanders. While visiting Geysir today, for example, the entire geyser sanction was surrounded by people scrunched up as close to the guard rope as possible. They were all marveling at the spring of steaming water as it would suddenly bubble up and burst into the air every 5 minutes or so. Although, all of the marveling was being captured through photos and videos, mainly on smartphones.

The same phenomenon happened at the Gullfoss waterfall, and some dared to ignore the safety rope and potential harm to vegetation to snap their photos of the icy yet freely gushing cascade of waterfalls. On a more familiar scale, the same could be said for places like Yellowstone or Yosemite National Parks in the United States. People might not care to spend elongated hours on hiking trails or meandering in those natural landscapes, though they will be getting a photo with Old Faithful or the Half-Dome. While capturing these sights on the camera allows for reflection on these experiences visually in the future, it prevents fully appreciating the landmark in the present and encourages many to risk the health of themselves and the ecosystem for the photo that says “been there, done that!” If millions of tourists come to Iceland to embrace nature in its “pure” form, it’s ironic that there’s a collective urge to manufacture and reproduce the authentic, unbridled “wilderness” through digital media. 

The urge to live tourism through photos like check marks also disrespects the cultural and natural value of Icelandic heritage landmarks like Thingvellir National Park, a pronounced World Heritage location since 1978. This park acts as the “heart” of Iceland both literally and figuratively according to Kristin Loftsdóttir and Katrín Anna Lund’s chapter in Postcolonial Perspectives on the European High North (2016). National treasures like the Law Rock, where the first parliamentary meetings were held by the original assembly, are situated within Thingvellir. In this way, the park represents the life and breath of Iceland’s independence centuries before it became a liberated nation in 1944. Despite this deep cultural significance, many tourists remain ignorant of these cultural connections and instead focus on the natural elements, such as the park’s location on the rift valley of two tectonic plates, and simply brush past those vital monuments like the Law Rock. The Law Rock may not have been the perfect photo opportunity (it was way smaller than many of us were expecting), but understanding its place in sustaining Icelandic culture is vital to having a more authentic tourist experience at Thingvellir National Park. As photographing, whether for personal viewing or for posting on social media, has become attached to tourism, it’s easier for people to make a beeline for the most aesthetic photo opportunity and completely brush past anything underwhelming based on physicality alone.

All things considered, the digital era of tourism isn’t all negative. The ability to share these images and cyclically attract other tourists is beneficial for Iceland from an economic standpoint. Since their economy has been increasingly based on tourism since 2011, they depend on that flow of capital. In our course, we ask questions about how these positives and negatives compare and when the economic benefits of tourism, for example, overpower and degrade authentic Icelandic culture as their entire country is being sold to the rest of the world. The digital world is just one of many factors that play into tourism’s effect on Icelandic culture and the general experience of tourists. I look forward to continue turning over these questions in the coming weeks. Thank you for taking the time to follow my blog post and others – I hope you’re inspired to return for more!


Comments are closed.