Iceland: A Culture of Concern Posted on January 11th, 2024 by

Iceland is home to 370,000 residents, visited by over 2 million tourists each year. That’s roughly 5 tourists per Icelandic resident, mainly focused in the city center of Reykjavik. These numbers not only suggest an increased amount of strain on the country as a whole, but cause new concerns relating to Iceland’s culture and sustainability. When looking into Iceland’s sustainability involving tourism, there are many concerns. There are two in particular that seem to stand out above the rest, housing and pay rates. Because tourism is so high, especially in the Reykjavik area, housing costs have skyrocketed. Those who are able to buy houses are most likely turning these areas into Airbnb’s, reducing the amount of affordable housing for others. After speaking with a city planner with a PhD in geography, she mentions that the city center has been taken over by tourists, leaving little to no Icelanders living in the area. Essentially, they have been evicted from their own homes. This becomes a larger concern when taking into consideration the growing number of tourists arriving in Iceland as the years progress. As there is already a lack of affordable housing and accommodations for visitors, more tourists will only make matters worse. When we were walking around the city center, it was obvious that there were many tourists wondering about and less so of any native Icelanders. This is shocking to think about in terms of the United States, or even Minnesota. Imagine that Minneapolis becomes a hot spot to stay for tourists traveling to America. Does it seem fair that property taxes or rental prices increase so much that you are forced to sell or move elsewhere in the state? As for the pay for those working within the tourism industry, Iceland’s workforce is roughly 25-30% foreign immigrants, meaning they may be working long hours for minimum wage. This is very problematic because without these workers, the tourism industry would fall. Basically, as mentioned by the city planner, this is un-sustainable in the long run. These workers deserve better pay for the work they are doing. There is also another issue that arose within the topic infrastructure, plumbing. As stated in an article called “From Boiling to Frozen? The Rise and Fall of International Tourism to Iceland in the Era of Overtourism” written by Anna Dóra Sæþórsdóttir, C. Michael Hall, and Margrét Wendt, much of the sewage systems were not prepared for the amount of tourism, as many sewage systems have reached carrying capacity, and an overall lack of public toilets has resulted in many issues. For example, during my time touring the golden circle, every gift shop bathroom had a line and every stall was taken. To go from needing only two bathrooms to 20 in a few years is mind blowing. On the other hand, tourist attractions that take frequent stops out in the open land have no bathrooms at all, leaving tourists to find the nearest area to do their business. Whether that be in front of a church, on the side of the street, or in someone’s front yard. However, what’s more shocking is that homeowners and city dwellers are left with the responsibility of cleaning up after these tourists. I’m sure that no matter what country you live in, if someone did their business on your lawn you would be pissed. Adding new bathroom facilities with increased sewage capacities is just one more thing that Icelanders are proposing to increase tourist sustainability. However, as for Iceland’s green energy, this is proving to be very sustainable within tourism (excluding airfare). Water is heated geothermally, power is created from mainly renewable resources, and many of Iceland’s cars and buses are electric, although they are still continuing to switch over to fully electric vehicles as the city planner and project manager for Ferðamálastofa (Icelandic Tourist Board) mentioned while meeting with us. This is very important for tourism as transportation and accommodations are the main factors in a comfortable experience. 


Iceland also has many concerns regarding their culture. After having such a large tourist boom as well as many immigrant workers, Iceland has begun to fear that their culture is fading. One of the biggest factors involved is the Icelandic language, which is also one of the most difficult languages to learn. The language holds important cultural meaning to the Icelandic people and with so many migrant workers within the tourism industry, Icelanders are sometimes unable to speak Icelandic with these workers. This causes natives to become irritated. Why should they have to speak English in their own country? If you went to your favorite coffee shop in America to order a drink and found out that the person working there didn’t speak English, I’m sure you and many others would be annoyed as well. This is something that while being in Iceland I have observed for myself. Every single person that I have encountered working at the numerous restaurants and museums have all been able to address me in English. However, one of our instructors informed the class that after talking to the man at the front desk, he explained his guilt for being unable to speak the native language with older Icelandic residents. However, I have also been addressed in Icelandic before I am addressed in English in certain places, giving me hope that the language will remain forever. Another way Icelandic culture has been in danger is from the lack of awareness in tourists. I will only briefly touch on this as Tyler Elliott and Abby Housker go into more detail about this in their previous blog posts. Similarly to others in the course, I have seen very few tourists take the time to immerse themselves in the Icelandic culture, whether it be through informational exhibits or museums. The lack of individuals within these informational spaces is astonishing and something I believe many others could learn from. I pose the question, if the United States became a national tourist destination (more so than it is now), how would you feel if almost every tourist disregarded the things you held value in, and ignored all the things you felt make up who you are? All of what I have mentioned is important when thinking about the concerns Icelanders have for their future in the tourism industry. I hope that you can take something out of what I have said and apply it to your future travel plans or maybe even to your own city!

House of Collections- Museum in downtown Reykjavík

No drones sign at Gullfoss Falls

Thingvellir National Park- where only 15 of 1,700 tourists decided to look at the cultural exhibit on display


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