Over-tourism in Iceland – myths dispelled by the experts

Friday, 10th November 2017

Destination Specialist

iceland flag waving

As the UK’s leading tour operator to Iceland, it has not escaped our attention that the tourism boom has had both positive and negative effects. Yet, as we send tour groups to the land of fire and ice, we’ve noticed a few stories that are at odds with the facts from our experts and others in the industry and we want to help dispel them!

The tourism boom is just getting worse and worse…

Through tourism, Iceland was able to resurrect its economy and share its dramatic landscapes and friendly culture with the world. However, understandably, it has been a big challenge for a small country to adapt to this rate of tourism growth which, in some years, has been as high as 20-40%.

What many people don’t realise is that the rate of tourism growth is actually dropping. It is likely that in 2018 the rate of growth will drop to a much more manageable 8% with a drop below the historic average of 5% expected in the years following that.

So, as Iceland begins to catch up and adapt to a more manageable growth the infrastructure and facilities, tourists should see a benefit.

The tourism boom is all over Iceland…

While Reykjavik and the South West of Iceland have received a large concentration of visitors, elsewhere in Iceland, areas have capacity for more visitors!

Some tour operators who only focus in the South West have found it difficult to find allocation of rooms. Even with our exclusive relationships with Icelandic hotels, we too have experienced more of a challenge when it comes to securing availability in and around Reykjavik.

To dodge busier landmarks, we are encouraging schools to look beyond the Golden Circle. Iceland has so much more to offer and we are providing schools with more opportunities to see these other areas. If you miss the remoteness and quiet of Iceland a decade ago, don’t write off the whole island, venture west or to the North and East, where direct flights are now available.

iceland north east godafoss viewpoint do

Read Varndean School’s experience in the North and East »

Tourists and Locals are unhappy…

This year we will send 9,000 students to Iceland and the response we receive is still extremely positive overall. Students are still able to experience the awe and wonder of Icelandic geography and get to know true Icelandic culture. To these students, who don’t have a reference of Iceland 10 years ago, Iceland is every bit as magical as they imagine. Occasionally a teacher may be disappointed with the changes to the Iceland that travelled to for many years but are usually intrigued by regions such as the West and North East which retain that quieter charm.

testimonial north and east iceland varndean school

Read our 2017 half term testimonials to find out more »

As for locals, a survey of Reykjavik natives found that 9/10 people felt positively about tourists and 8/10 felt that tourism has helped their economy and environment improve.

Local people remember the Icelandic financial crisis from 2008. Relative to the size of Iceland’s economy, the banking collapse was the largest experienced by any nation in history. This resulted in severe job loss and economic depression. The tourism industry has driven the Icelandic economy in recent years. This has allowed employment and real exchange rate to have recovered to at least the levels they were before the 2008 crash. Contrary to previous economic booms, there is a large current account of surplus rather than a large deficit.

Read a report from September 2016 conducted by the Icelandic Tourist board shows that 96% of the tourists that come to Iceland are satisfied with their trip and 90% say that they will come back.

Check out the Tourism index (Ferðamannapúlsinn), a cooperation between Gallup, ISAVIA and the Icelandic Tourist Board with the goal of monitoring overall satisfaction and experience of tourists visiting Iceland.

Iceland is too expensive for schools…

There is no doubt that Iceland has become more expensive over the last year or so, however there are still some fantastic deals to be had for school groups. For example, did you know that the cost of flights to Iceland is actually at a record low?

One of the biggest factors affecting price is how early you start planning. In truth, availability may be a school’s biggest obstacle when booking a trip so getting started early will make a huge difference. Also, if your tour operator has exclusivity and allocation of rooms and activities in Iceland they will be able to secure you a rate which is better value for money.

Iceland isn’t as ‘green’ as it was…

With anecdotal reports of litter and vandalism, you may be surprised to realise that Iceland was ranked by the Telegraph as the 2nd most environmentally friendly country in Europe this year, just behind Finland. It was also the 8th least polluted country in the world in a similar study.

iceland north east husavik whale watching rth
Humpback whale breaching in Husavik Iceland

The Icelandic population still take ecotourism very seriously and educational trips provide students with an opportunity to understand how tourism can affect the environment and how a country like Iceland finds ways to mitigate these effects. For example, the Visit Iceland ran a campaign to encourage people to visit different parts of Iceland to avoid the concentration of tourist in one place.

Plus, the Iceland government have made sustainable tourism a key goal moving forward. We spoke to Ari Trausti Guðmundsson, an Icelandic geologist, author, lecturer and politician who had this to say about the plans in development to ensure Iceland maintains its sustainable nature:

“Iceland authorities have put forward sustainability as the foundation for tourism. This fact should indicate, in the next few years, that the actual growth in tourism and the total number of tourists per year is bound to approach an upper limit. That, in turn, would call for various mechanisms to control the utilization of natural resources and nature as an attraction, and not to overstep the social capability of receiving tourists plus to safeguard the manifold of the Icelandic economy.”

So, should you still go to Iceland?

Of course! There are many fantastic destinations for a geography school trips but if you have your heart set on taking your students to see the magnificent land of fire and ice you should not be discouraged. Talk to our travel specialists about what you want to do and when and we will be sure to find you the best value for money in Iceland or any other destination.

Find out more in this interesting summary of Landsbankinn Economic Research’s in-depth analysis of the Icelandic tourism industry »

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