You’ve probably seen the pictures on your Instagram feed from one friend or another. White-covered mountains, ice bergs floating in lakes in front of a massive glacier, green and purple lights dancing in the sky and geysers spitting steam high up in the air. I’m talking about the newest addition to ‘most wanted travel destinations’: Iceland.
Last year, the nation hosted 1.26 million tourists, a staggering number for a chilly island whose population barely scrapes past 330,000 citizens. Estimations indicate that the increase of visitors between years is around 27%.¹
Airlines like WOW air and Iceland Air are now offering very cheap transatlantic flights with a stop in Reykjavik, and started successful campaigns to invite travelers to make the most of their layover. Since then, this nation has been conquering the hearts and feeds of many.
This massive increase is a welcome change for the Icelandic economy that had been struggling since 2008. Restaurants, hotels, tours and car rental companies are popping up all over the country, and are happily creating jobs for the locals. And let’s not forget to mention the 124% increase of Airbnb’s in one year! We met multiple people who moved out of their houses, so they can fill up every room with Airbnb guests. It’s their main source of income, and they’ll gladly live in a guesthouse in the backyard for it. Besides the economic benefits, this nation’s raw beauty is finally getting the attention it deserves. I can imagine how the national morale gets a boost by all these foreigners bragging about their adventures and 1000-likes-worth photographs of the things that they’ve called normal for so long.
But of course, being a small and very thinly populated nation, the sudden increase in visitors also is bringing challenges. Big chains are seeing the profit potential in the capital city, and the local stores are the often ones who have to make room for them. But the problems are perhaps most obvious outside of Reykjavik. As a CityLab article points out: “This is a raw-boned, hardscrabble country, both thinly populated and thinly served by public amenities. That’s much of its attraction, of course—the idea of having ancient lava fields, raging waterfalls, and mossy ravines more or less to yourself. You’re far less likely to be alone nowadays, though, and many of the easier-to-access areas are groaning under the pressure of not being as unfrequented as they once were.“²
Having just visited this beautiful nation, I was compelled to share these insights when I read them. You can read my travel stories, see all the photographs and hear about my personal recommendations here, because I’d love to inspire you to put Iceland on your travel bucket list. However, as you do, let’s keep in mind to honor the people who call this country their home, and let’s preserve the raw beauty so our children’s children can post their 3D holograms on their future social media platforms as well.
Here are eight ways to be a tourist in Iceland that locals will love :
(1) Shop local.
Stay at an Airbnb, or a local hostel instead of a big hotel chain. Iceland is clean and safe, so you’d be surprised how well you’ll be taken care of even when you don’t stay at the Hilton. Go to the restaurants whose names you don’t recognize and do your souvenir shopping in the little towns.
(2) Stay on track
Don’t go off-road. I’m sure it feels awesome to drive in the middle of nowhere in your manly 4×4, with nothing but the horizon in front of you. Less awesome is that you’re actually ruining the vulnerable nature by doing so. This also means that you should stay on the trails or wooden paths while hiking. Admittedly, I’ve been guilty of ignoring the trail in order to keep my shoes dry or get that perfect shot without a fence in the frame. I read afterwards what impact it has on the delicate moss and sensitive soil, and I’m now regretting ever leaving the marked paths!
(3) Poop properly.
Plan your bathroom visits well. Iceland doesn’t have a lot of public amenities, not even at the most popular tourist attractions, but relieving yourself in nature is not acceptable. You can imagine what would happen if all 1.3 million tourists did this… If it’s a real emergency, pick up after yourself (aka have a few plastic bags ready in your car and backpack) and don’t leave your waste or the toilet paper laying around.
(4) Don’t litter
Leave every place cleaner than you found it. Seeing some plastic trash floating in a gorgeous glacier lake made me very sad. Again, pick up after yourself, and if needed, after others too. One thing I wasn’t aware of, is that ‘trash’ includes biodegradable waste, like banana peels and apple cores. Anything that’s not naturally in the environment, belongs in a trash can.
(5) Be safe.
I know 90 km/h on a highway doesn’t seem like a lot, but that limit is there for a reason. We saw some absolutely wrecked cars laying next to the road; a stern reminder to really pay attention to those road signs. Don’t stop your car where you shouldn’t, even if it’s just for a few minutes to take that awesome snap. Check the weather forecasts frequently, since you don’t want to be caught in the middle of a snow- or sandstorm while driving (or hiking, for that matter).
Let the landscape inspire you to be quiet. We were often surprised by how little sounds there were, even in the middle of a city. Icelanders are in general pretty quiet, and by being loud and obnoxious (or even worse: loud, obnoxious and intoxicated), you actually disturb the atmosphere that this nation is fond of.
(7) Camp at official campgrounds only
Don’t camp where you’re not supposed to. This includes parking lots, residential areas and camping in the wild.
(8) Pay like someone’s watching
Don’t take advantage of the trust-based fees. Some pools, hot springs and parks ask for a fee, but especially in the winter months, nobody will check if you’ve paid it or not. This doesn’t mean that those fees are optional though, since this money is used to maintain and preserve. So don’t forget to keep a bit of cash on you when you’re out exploring.
Iceland is worth it. It rightfully deserves the attention it is getting. I hope that the country will benefit from all the visitors, and that this nation will be an example of how tourists can take care of a country they’re a guest in.