There is a very good reason Iceland, with a population of about 330k people, had 1.8 million international visitors in 2016 (Iceland Tourist Board). It is unlike any other place I have visited. With majestic waterfalls, the original geyser, bubbly hot springs and bright blue icebergs washing up on black sand beaches, Iceland offers unique scenes that impress and awe its visitors. That being said, it is not all scenic and natural like you might imagine, or conclude from the massive amounts of gorgeous pictures to follow. Massive deforestation began with the Vikings, and continued as land was needed more and more for sheep grazing, an important food source. The forests that do still exist are few and far between, making it necessary to import wood from hundreds of miles across the ocean. Not a cheap task. Iceland continues to lose more vegetation due to wind erosion, making it even harder to reforest. Iceland also hosts 3 aluminum smelters that depend on massive amounts of cheap hydro and geothermal power to provide enough energy to extract aluminum from imported alumina. While they do use renewable energy, a multitude of environmental impacts make it a controversial industry.
Despite these issues, Iceland’s tourism industry is booming and it is evident that it could spiral out of control quickly. A large part of the appeal of Iceland is that many of the main attractions are right along the ring road, are free and relatively easy to reach. Small buses ply around the ring road dropping off small hordes of people to quickly snap their Instagram-worthy shot before being shuttled to the next attraction. The Icelanders are fed up with their antics. Tourists are not respecting the landscape and a few even died this year while straying off the marked paths. Public pooping has even become a big problem. We witnessed first-hand a lot of poor behavior, ranging from flying drones in clearly marked no-fly zones, to getting dangerously close to the edges of waterfalls. To combat this, some of the sites have started charging for parking. I’m guessing they will use some of the revenue to construct more barriers and signs to try to control the flow of tourists. However, this may not be the best approach. They are preparing to attract more tourists, but not the right kind. They should be focused on the tourists who want to experience Icelandic life and culture, those that want to preserve the wilderness, not trample all over it. In this way, they may be able to prevent the “Disneyland” effect that is plaguing places like Venice and Barcelona. Perhaps they can follow Costa Rica’s example and focus on sustainable tourism.
Our 14 day itinerary can be found at Iceland in Two Weeks – Itinerary and Tips , but basically we started in Reykjavik and headed north to the Westfjords and then continued on the ring road clockwise, with a detour in the diamond circle and and day trip into the highlands. Here is a great map with lots of points of interest that you can even customize through Google maps: 14 day Iceland Itinerary Map. We skipped the Blue Lagoon, as it sounds like it has become a major tourist trap and certain members of our group don’t have the attention span to soak lazily in the water when there are photographs to be taken elsewhere. Its also insanely expensive. We managed a few hot pots instead (for free) and you can easily visit the local swimming pools in many towns.
It was a fabulous trip, where we didn’t think we could see something cooler, until the next day, when we did. Seals were the highlight for me. Riki obsessed a bit about capturing the Northern Lights. And the sheer amount of beautiful scenery was astounding. Hopefully, it will stay that way.
Back on the ring road.
Reindeer are non-native and there is a fixed number that are shot every year. We spotted these hunters in the highlands in the east. They half-joked that reindeer is the most expensive meat because the permits cost $700-1250 depending on the gender. And you have to hire a guide as well. We also visited the East Iceland Heritage Museum in Egilsstaðir which houses an interesting exhibit on reindeer. We saw a mink, another non-native species and Riki and I glimpsed an Arctic fox, the only native land mammal in Iceland. Seals don’t count I guess, even though they seem to spend quite a bit of time on the beach. Otherwise, it was a whole lot of sheep, some horses, and a spattering of birds.
There were thousands of photos taken on this trip between my parents, Riki and me. For more, check our Riki’s photo site at Riki’s Photo Website