My own private Iceland
October 25, 2019 2:13 AM   Subscribe

Kyle Chayka at Vox reconsiders Iceland's tourist boom. "While traveling in Iceland this spring to talk to Icelanders about the boom and subsequent slowdown, however, I began to doubt the concept of overtourism itself. The stigma of overtourism is contingent on the sense that a place without as many tourists is more real, more authentic, than it is with them. It poses tourists as foreign entities to a place in the same way that viruses are foreign to the human body. From the visitor’s side, overtourism is also a subjective concern based on a feeling: It’s the point at which your personal narrative of unique experience is broken, the point at which there are too many people — like yourself — who don’t belong in a place.
posted by adrianhon (28 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
I grew up on the Big Island in the 80s, when it was much less of a tourist destination, particularly on the Puna side. It was where the adventurous travelers went. There were some tourist services, but most services were geared towards the people who lived there. But that was changing as I grew up.

I have lived in Iceland for the past decade, and watching the tourist industry boom and now begin to settle has been interesting in the context of my childhood in Hawaii.

From my perspective, it is not that a place with more tourists is a priori less authentic, but that in order to cater to the tourist market, you often end up caricaturizing yourself. Because someone with a week or less to "experience Iceland" wants lava and aurora and sagas and hotsprings and trolls all in one sitting, and that is the definition of a caricature: Something with all of its distinguishing characteristics grossly exaggerated. But I also do not generally think that this a problem so much an an aesthetic judgement.

I appreciate the greater variety of restaurants and craft bars that the tourist market helps sustain. I do not begrudge people their Iceland experience of visiting the golden circle or hiking on glaciers, even if it means some destinations have crowds. No, the problem with overtourism is infrastructure, capitalism, and the environment. Who gets to profit from selling the shared culture to outsiders? Who gets to use public infrastructure for private gain? Who pays for conservation of sensitive areas, and education for visitors? What is displaced when yet more hotels are built? These are the problems, and tourism becomes overtourism whenever you don't have good answers to those questions, regardless of the actual number of tourists.

Yes, it is nice that there are more cafes. But it was also nice when basic government services were available downtown, and a person without a car could access them easily. That is a cost, and who bears it?
posted by Nothing at 3:35 AM on October 25 [57 favorites]


What people say: "We discovered somewhere completely unspoiled.

What people mean: "We spoiled somewhere completely undiscovered".
posted by howfar at 3:45 AM on October 25 [16 favorites]


Going on vacation but not like a tourist is a real Stuff White People Like thing.
posted by thelonius at 4:03 AM on October 25 [44 favorites]


In other words: nobody goes there anymore -- it's too crowded.
posted by Pararrayos at 4:56 AM on October 25 [1 favorite]


So I'm in the heritage field and have been hearing squawks about "overtourism," but I had no idea about this:

Overtourism is what happens to a place when an avalanche of tourists “changes the quality of life for people who actually live there,” says Andrew Sheivachman, an editor at the travel website Skift, whose 2016 report about Iceland established the term.

It changes my perception of the term that it did not come directly out of, like, UNESCO or UNWTO studies but by a private tourism market research firm. Who defines "over-"?

There's also a historical perspective needed. One of my research interests is the camp meeting movement - a mass religious revival movement that flourished in the US 1810 -1880s that completely reshaped the infrastructure and economies of coastal areas in particular. As part of this movement people traveled to formerly fairly remote locations to reside for 1-3 weeks, or a whole summer eventually - and they traveled literally in the thousands, like 6000 people at a time descending on what was formerly a sheep meadow or a village of 75 inhabitants.

The overtourism concept also counts only arrivals by air. Prior to 1980 or so, more vacation trips were made by car or train.

Good piece, the term is worth thinking critically about.
posted by Miko at 5:04 AM on October 25 [6 favorites]


I live in a historic city that has numberless tourists in certain parts of it, and I find the visitors sweet and charming. I like giving directions to German tourists on the bus, I enjoy having the riders of the double-decker buses gawk down at me, I am amused by the clearly-from-elsewhere fresh-faced families consulting their phones and giving one another directions, and I even like the middle school field trip groups (but then I taught middle school so the children don't frighten me).

That said, I have almost never visited the landmarks most of them are seeking out, so my city and theirs don't intersect in a meaningful way. One massive visitor center is a very convenient place to meet folks for planning sessions because almost no one is sitting at the tables in the back.
posted by Peach at 5:16 AM on October 25


inexplicably fails to use the expression “Game of Throngs”
posted by doubtfulpalace at 6:24 AM on October 25 [6 favorites]


The article doesn't consider the opportunity to meet people who live in these places. When you are the only (nationality) in town you become a tourist opportunity. Being the only American in various places in Yugoslavia (yes, a long time ago) meant it was easy to have extensive interactions as we satisfied each other's curiosity. Encounters led to walks, meals together and visits to homes. In more visited places we were just part of the tourist masses and found few chances to get to know anyone except other tourists.
posted by Botanizer at 6:32 AM on October 25 [1 favorite]


I grew up in an Appalachian resort/tourist town, that has been a resort/tourist town since the last century. At 3/4 of the reasons people visit are because of the elaborate architecture and infrastructure brought by the hugely wealthy tourists from other places during the Gilded Age. The tourism became the reason for the tourism.

I don't live there anymore because I hated being condescended to by assholes on bus tours because I talked funny (a significant contributor to why I ironed out my accent as a kid and I feel weird about that now, too) and grew tired of the diminishing returns of living in a place that is never really going to be for the the people that live there. I mean, the views are nice, but you can't afford to buy a house when you're still making Appalachian service industry wages and getting outbid on real estate by rich people that want second homes and wanna-be rich people trying to get rich off short term rentals. And it's deeply annoying to hear from the bajillion NIMBYs that moved there last year from California after a "soul-defining" homeopathic yoga networking retreat and now consider themselves experts on your hometown, its people, and what they need. I mean, seriously, fuck that noise.

Most of my day job is tourism-related. I'm aware of the irony. I'm also aware that for large swaths of the US--and certainly my home corner of Appalachia and Appalachia-adjacent-- tourism is basically the only thing keeping a bunch of small towns and communities alive. It's an option--maybe the only option-- once the mills and mines close, so long as you have a moderately charming main street and you haven't mountaintop-removed your most scenic panorama. With time, the old equipment shed by the quarry becomes a craft brewery and the mill village houses* look so adorable all-cleaned up and people start tubing in the waterways that forty years ago were full of carcinogens. I'm . . . ambivalent about it. The bluegrass themed locavore boutique hotel probably does not employ old miners and millworkers--nor does it pay as well--but a few of their kids maybe get jobs, maybe learn something about hotel management or "natural wine" and maybe figure out a path to either profit off the oblivious outsiders who see them as ignorant, tragic, or folksy or get the hell out of there while they still can.

Tourism doesn't help everyone, certainly nowhere near the number of people it promises to help. Cities get crowded. Local people--the people with jobs-- can't get around. They can't afford to live there. The much-vaunted tourism jobs are usually minimum wage service jobs that won't pay for the now-inflated cost of a town rebuilt to cater to more affluent people from elsewhere (who still think they're getting a deal). We lose the valuable parts of their culture and identity not viewed as profitable enough to enshrine and the same time find rest reduced to caricature. On the other hand, what happens when/if the tourists well and truly leave? Not just the little towns barely making it on souvenir tote backs, scenic selfies, and "authentic" hand crafts. Those places die, probably. But what about the bigger towns and cities? I mean, it's fun talking about empty hotels and Airbnbs where we can live cheap and do art projects, but for real, though?

I don't know. I spend a lot of time thinking about it, though, because of where I grew up, because I work in the industry and feel culpable whenever I see roads blocked for miles around an attraction I wrote about, because it's been a defining conversation of my life since my parents sat around the kitchen table when I was a kid and weighed the costs and benefits of participating in a downtown revitalization plan that would function, explicitly, as an economic development engine for tourism, because I myself travel, because I love it, because two weeks ago today I stood among packs of tourists in a theoretically remote part of the Scottish highlands at the outset of a hike, and thought there are too many of them here before correcting to duh, there are too many of us here.

In short, tourism: land of contrasts.

*Full disclosure: I live in a cleaned up old mill village house in a completely gentrified old mill village (though not in Appalachia). So, you see, rife with contradictions over here
posted by thivaia at 6:33 AM on October 25 [24 favorites]


U.S. National Park Service > Office of Communications > National Park System Sees More Than 330 Million Visits, February 28, 2018:
WASHINGTON – The National Park Service (NPS) today announced 330,882,751 recreation visits in 2017 – almost identical to the record-setting 330,971,689 recreation visits in 2016. While numbers were steady, visitors actually spent more time in parks during their 2017 visits compared to 2016.

Increased attendance at parks, 1.5 billion visits in the last five years, also means aging park facilities are incurring further wear and tear. President Trump has proposed legislation to establish a Public Lands Infrastructure Fund that would help address the $11.6 billion maintenance backlog in the National Park System. The fund would take new revenue from federal energy leasing and development and provide up to $18 billion to help pay for repairs and improvements in national parks, national wildlife refuges and Bureau of Indian Education funded schools.

“Our National Parks are being loved to death," said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. "As visitor rates continue at a high level, we must prioritize much-needed deferred maintenance including aging facilities, roads and other critical infrastructure. President Trump's proposal to establish a Public Lands Infrastructure Fund is a step in the right direction. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue, this is an American issue, and the President and I remain ready to work with anyone in Congress who is willing to get the job done.”

National Park System 2017 visitation highlights include:
...

Top 10 Visitation National Parks [Park, Recreation Visits, Deferred Maintenance]
  • Blue Ridge Parkway 16,093,765 $461,564,707
  • Golden Gate National Recreation Area 14,981,897 $325,814,011
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park 11,388,893 $215,451,902
  • Gateway National Recreation Area 9,190,610 $788,419,471
  • Lincoln Memorial 7,956,117 $33,868,238
  • Lake Mead National Recreation Area 7,882,339 $205,540,564
  • George Washington Memorial Parkway 7,562,793 $655,330,330
  • Natchez Trace Parkway 6,326,062 $361,294,324
  • Grand Canyon National Park 6,254,238 $329,437,054
  • Vietnam Veterans Memorial 5,072,589 $625,250
More stats in this article and at NPS > Social Science > Annual Visitation Highlights.
posted by cenoxo at 7:19 AM on October 25 [3 favorites]


I also grew up and currently live in areas that relied heavily on tourism to support the local economy. It's fair to say that I don't like stereotypical "tourists" in general. At the same time, as folks have seen here, I'm strongly opposed to attitudes that don't treat homeless folks or temporary residents (students, temporary workers, whatever) as valid community members.

The affect of visitors/tourists makes a huge difference. If someone comes and ignores everyone else trying to live their lives in an area, and either explicitly or implicitly through their actions assumes that everything is supposed to be about them and their experience, that's obnoxious. Wandering aimlessly down the exact middle of the sidewalk, blocking the rest of us who need to get somewhere? Driving the wrong way down the one-way street? Changing lanes last minute or turning in the opposite direction of the way you signaled or otherwise creating traffic hazards because you have no sweet clue where you are going? Driving well below the speed limit because you aren't used to roads with curves or don't actually know how to drive that honking RV that you either rented or only drive once a year, and not paying attention to the giant line of other drivers behind you? Not busing your own table at the coffee shop, or lining up in the middle of the walking area instead of where folks usually and more efficiently line up? Not knowing or following local rules around recycling/waste disposal, crosswalk right of way, or things like that? These are all problems of people not being aware of - or not caring - how their actions are affecting others around them, and that annoys the heck out of me. To be fair, locals can act this way at times too; and definitely not all tourists or visitors are clueless, self-centered twits.

Conjecture: I wonder if tourists displaying these behavior more frequently has anything to do with the class and race dynamics of who can afford to go places on vacations?
posted by eviemath at 7:26 AM on October 25 [3 favorites]


(affect [noun]
1 [German Affekt, borrowed from Latin affectus] : the conscious subjective aspect of an emotion considered apart from bodily changes

also : a set of observable manifestations of a subjectively experienced emotion

… patients … showed perfectly normal reactions and affects …
— Oliver Sacks
)

posted by eviemath at 7:32 AM on October 25


I used to live in a regional vacation destination town (one of the small towns on the North Shore of Lake Superior, in MN). We definitely had tourist "season" - the summers were packed with families driving up from the Twin Cities; autumn had leaf-peepers but far less of them than summer visitors; winter had only the hardiest of outdoor enthusiasts; and nobody came to the area in the spring because it was just a muddy mess. So I had the place to myself when the tourists were scared off by crappy weather.

For example: I would never go to Gooseberry Falls during the summer/fall because I would have to park my car on the side of the road and walk half a mile just to get into the park, through throngs of people with cars and RVs belching exhaust, just so I could join the parade to the Falls. However, in the winter and spring it was common for mine to be the only car in the parking lot. That was my own private Minnesota - available only to those who were willing to deal with the mud, ice, and snow.

The other local industries (taconite mining and shipping, commercial fishing) weren't strong enough to support the town without tourism. We appreciated the money and were annoyed by the crowds, but at least the crowds took the spring and winters off.

I loved it there but I can't imagine living in a place where it's tourist season all year round. What's the point in living in a place of quiet beauty if it's never actually quiet?
posted by Gray Duck at 7:53 AM on October 25 [1 favorite]


The Ugly Tourist (and How Not to Be One), Rick Steve’s Europe.

Fortunately, not every American abroad is a boor. In the influential 1958 novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer:
The "Ugly American" of the book title refers to the book's hero, plain-looking engineer Homer Atkins, whose "calloused and grease-blackened hands always reminded him that he was an ugly man." Atkins, who lives with the local people, comes to understand their needs, and offers genuinely useful assistance with small-scale projects such as the development of a simple bicycle-powered water pump.
posted by cenoxo at 8:18 AM on October 25


For me, the thing about Iceland in particular is that the countryside is such a bizarre and lonely (it's not dystopian, more like notopian) place that crowds do rather spoil the effect. But that's an aesthetic judgment. (Also, this article vastly exaggerates the difficulties of a do-it-yourself rental-car trip [as long as at least one of your people can drive], which allows you more flexibility and to at least not be bringing an actual horde with you.)

The neighborhood I work in in NYC is *&^(*&@ infested, and the worst part is that some of the main draws are 9/11-or capitalism-related, which frankly sorts for the worst possible people amongst the pure tourists (i.e., those not actually mourning someone they lost). I generally try to remind myself that our economy certainly benefits from hustling these people for every last dime, and I try to be nice to people who are lost. But, boy, it is always very very clear how many Americans do not conceive of sidewalks as anything but decorative/recreational features.
posted by praemunire at 8:23 AM on October 25 [5 favorites]


Driving well below the speed limit because you aren't used to roads with curves

I'm on board with a lot of your list, eviemath, but I'm trying to think of the inverse of this, and "driving at the speed limit even though you aren't used to roads with curves" sounds like a recipe for disaster.

This article was great food for thought - thanks, adrianhon. I live in one of the most touristed cities in the UK; in the summer months the street outside my office is heaving with visitors. I moved here in part on the basis of old memories of visiting it as a tourist. When I first visited the UK, the world's population was 2/3 of what it is today, and air travel wasn't as affordable as it became by the late 1990s; travelling in Europe felt less crowded. But I don't pretend that makes my past tourism any better than today's. It's just an accident of timing.

The island where I grew up probably occupies a similar "end of the earth" position to Iceland in the minds of many, and has noticeably more tourists when I visit it nowadays. When I visit it nowadays, am I a tourist? Sometimes. I've been a tourist everywhere ever since leaving home half a lifetime ago, some of the time.
posted by rory at 8:57 AM on October 25 [2 favorites]


I live in a city of about 7.4 million people which got about 68,000,000 tourists in 2018, over 75% of which came from one country. It's a huge part of the economy, obviously, but it has bred a lot of resentment about neighborhoods which seem completely composed of the boutiques, pharmacies, jewelry shops and cosmetics stores the tourists choose to frequent.

The trains and buses are as crowded as ever, and local disgust at badly-behaved tourists has been evolving into a sadly familiar 'anti-foreigner' vibe in some circles. I'm not sure how things will change given the situation here, but anecdotally, tourist numbers have dropped dramatically and local hotels and restaurants seem desperate for custom. Is this drop-off sustainable? I'm not sure - but I'm glad I don't work in the hospitality industry or in retail, where jobs seem most vulnerable.
posted by mdonley at 8:57 AM on October 25 [2 favorites]


a recent survey: the closer to the center of Reykjavik, the more positive locals are in their perception of tourist

Of course this would not count the people who've been pushed out of the city by AirBNB and the accomplices who buy up units and take them off the housing market.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:17 AM on October 25 [1 favorite]


Isn't there a conversation to be had about the environmental impact of tourism (especially by airplane) on a macro level?
posted by Selena777 at 9:38 AM on October 25 [2 favorites]



I'm on board with a lot of your list, eviemath, but I'm trying to think of the inverse of this, and "driving at the speed limit even though you aren't used to roads with curves" sounds like a recipe for disaster.

A reasonable alternative would be to not drive in circumstances where one is not able to safely drive to local standards - i.e., if one isn't good enough at driving to drive on roads with curves, or isn't good enough at driving large vehicles to drive an RV, then one should simply avoid such situations, or take a driving course to improve one's skills before attempting these activities.

posted by eviemath at 10:53 AM on October 25 [1 favorite]


Not exactly aligned with the original statement however I'm, I like think, a skilled mountain driver used to all sort of weather conditions. I still drive slower than the locals on a twisty road I'm not familiar with. Prudence demands it. Or if I'm gawking at newly revealed scenery on a road I drive every week.
posted by Mitheral at 11:17 AM on October 25 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I learned to drive on the twistiest roads in Australia, and know how hard-earned the ability to drive at speed on them is. I don't think less of someone driving a bit slower on them because they're unfamiliar with them.

A reasonable alternative would be to not drive in circumstances where one is not able to safely drive to local standards

Is that really reasonable? It would trap us all in our own local areas, because we'd never clear the hurdle of unfamiliarity the first time we drove elsewhere. Just having seen the roads as a pedestrian or on a tour bus doesn't give you the necessary insight into what's required as a driver - you have to jump in.

I wouldn't have been able to drive in North America and Europe for the past twenty years if "drive as well as the locals" had been the threshold for my first time driving on the right-hand side of the road. But I still drove safely, and could soon do so more confidently.

(The last time I drove on the right was in Iceland. Ha!)
posted by rory at 11:41 AM on October 25 [5 favorites]


Interesting article with some interesting points.

I was one of those millions who went to Iceland via the cheap flights (in my case WowAir in 2016). I'd always wanted to go to Iceland since I had read Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth when I was 12 years old (a long time ago...) and even wanted to go as part of my honeymoon but getting there was prohibitively expensive at the time. When I went I wasn't looking so much for authenticity (I'm not even sure what that would be in Iceland) but to see at least Snæfellsjökull which inspired so much of my imagination as a kid.

One thing from the article I take a bit of an issue with however:
"...charting your own route with a rental car is both more expensive and more forbidding due to the weather, terrain, and not-insignificant chance of, say, getting stuck in a river."
Having exactly done that it really isn't all that much more in cost or in danger (as long as you're actually paying attention to what the local laws are, signage and what actual Icelanders tell you - in other words don't be an idiot). I compiled a top ten list from the various places (which was not unlike the one mentioned in the article) but I went further and read blogs by Icelanders talking about the things they liked and plotted the course based on that information. We weren't disappointed but one thing that became very clear early on was that the majority of tourists really had specific set things they were going to see and do when in Iceland without deviation. To the point, that at times, the difference between some sites was ridiculous.

For instance, the Golden Circle was packed but hardly anyone was at the Kerid Crater lake that was in the same general area. The Solheimasandur plane wreck was crawling with people but there was no one who walked down to the spectacular black sand beach. No one bothered with the cool art exhibits in the Settlement Centre in Borgarnes and those that were there never went beyond the restaurant & gift shop. A few people stopped at the Gerðuberg basalt cliffs but no one went down the road to the mineral spring or the small waterfall. Vatnshellir Cave had a 3 hour waiting list for a tour and everybody just sat in their idling vehicles to wait. We went down the road 10 minutes, took a left turn at spectacular rainbow down a side road to the beach, followed a random trail and enjoyed a hike. On that walk the only people we saw were Icelanders enjoying the day. We didn't bother with the Blue Lagoon but the rest of the family enjoyed a public pool which was mostly just Icelandic families. When my family did that I went to the Culture House museum (easily one of my favourite museums) and I was completely alone the day I went. It was certainly strange.

Most of the tourists we encountered were almost exclusively people who were on bus tours or were intent on driving around the island (and had no intention of actually stopping anywhere). The bus tourists were largely an odd bunch. As an example, we stopped in the little fishing village of Arnarstapi for a break and I heard a woman from a bus tour complain that she wouldn't have come to Iceland if she knew it "rained all the time" and she had to look at "all these churches." She of course had no rain gear and was using a garbage bag as a makeshift poncho. The only people we met who were doing anything differently were a Canadian mother & son of Icelandic descent who were visiting the areas their ancestors were from, some campers from Denmark and some bicyclists.

Nobody likes obnoxious tourists but like user Nothing above, I think the greater issues with overtourism are to do with infrastructure, capitalism, and the effects to the environment. One of the things that is very noticeable at some of the highly visited sites in Iceland is that I'm not really sure that they are set up to withstand the amount of people visiting them. And yeah I was legitimately surprised by how some people would treat some of the sites with little respect - throwing garbage everywhere, climbing on things, wandering in areas that were clearly roped off and on and on. Utterly bizarre behaviour.
posted by Ashwagandha at 12:45 PM on October 25 [3 favorites]


The only people we met who were doing anything differently

We met a reasonable, but not overwhelming, number of people who were doing self-drive tours back in 2015. More Europeans than Americans/Canadians, was at least my anecdotal impression. I've been a fan of the sagas since ~college; reading Njal's out loud while driving around in the rough vicinity of events was exciting. But we were judicious in which of the more popular stops we stopped at. It's a better way than a giant package tour but of course it still contributes to ecological and cultural impact. Probably nobody would make hakarl at all anymore if not for the tourists--that's a heavy responsibility!
posted by praemunire at 1:24 PM on October 25 [1 favorite]


Please see Jim Stile's ongoing descriptions and explanations of the effects of "Industrial Tourism" and the Amenities Economy on Moab UT and adjacent parks in his online newspaper The Zephyr .
posted by Mesaverdian at 2:45 PM on October 25 [1 favorite]


I still drive slower than the locals

Ok but I was ranting about folks not driving the speed limit. Or at least having the awareness to pull over periodically to let the people behind them pass; or to not slow waaay down in the curves and then speed waaay up on the passing lanes in the straightaway, thereby preventing folks who can take the curves at speed from passing. I'm talking about the folks who slow down to 10 or 20 (km/hr or mph) below even the posted curve speed (which is for big trucks, not cars, but still).

Is that really reasonable?

Yes. I know you're reacting to an exaggerated version rather than what I actually said, but I do contend in general that folks who lack the basic level of awareness of other drivers on the road to notice if and when they are holding up traffic should not be driving. My complaints (the actual ones, at least) are not impediments unless the drivers in question are unable (unlikely if they have the funds for vacationing) or unwilling (in which case, I have little sympathy) to take a course or something to improve their driving skills.
posted by eviemath at 3:15 PM on October 25


The speed limit on the highway to Ísafjörður felt 10 km/h too high to me. I would probably have been fine continuing on at the limit, but I wasn't comfortable, and didn't want to find out the bad way if I didn't have the skills. So I turned around at the next town and stuck to the ring road once I got back to it. The ring road turned out okay.
posted by mscibing at 5:09 PM on October 25


Command performance (via)
The idea that other tourists spoil the authenticity of a place is part of what sociologists John Urry and Jonas Larsen call the tourist’s “romantic gaze,” which emphasizes “solitude, privacy and a personal, semi-spiritual relationship” with the places being visited. It co-exists with what they call the “collective gaze,” which delights in the presence of crowds, who give a place its energy and aura of desirability. A subspecies of the collective gaze is the “mediatized gaze,” when a place’s appearance in TV, movies, or now social media stands in for the crowd. In this article about how the Joker movie turned a staircase in the Bronx into an attraction, Wired calls this “meme tourism,” since the goal is to emulate a previous media representation of a place and iterate on it with your own version on social media.
posted by kliuless at 6:09 AM on October 29 [1 favorite]


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