Tourism in Iceland is booming — but that may not be all good news

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Iceland's national flag and a church are seen in the town of Vik, Iceland April 22, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo - RTSFTO2

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GWEN IFILL: The tourist season in Europe is winding down, and at least one nation hopes it will stay that way.

Iceland was one of this year’s “It” destinations for vacationers, but people there are learning the downside of that boom. More tourist money can also mean more problems.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has our story.

MALCOLM BRABANT: With its volcanic underbelly and unspoiled prehistoric landscape, Iceland has suddenly become one of the hottest destinations.

OLOF YRR ATLADOTTIR, Director General, Icelandic Tourist Board: My name is Olof Yrr Atladottir. And I’m the director general of the Icelandic Tourist Board.

For me, Iceland is the possibility of enjoying solitude in spectacular wide-open spaces.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Iceland is certainly spectacular. The Gullfoss Waterfall, part of the so-called Golden Circle of attractions not far from the capital, is said by some to rival Niagara Falls.

And it’s not surrounded by high-rise hotels. But can you get solitude? That’s debatable. Iceland is a location for “Game of Thrones.” And fans of the hit series are partly responsible for the island’s new popularity, so much so, that it’s difficult to grab a shot of pure nature without getting photo-bombed by people taking selfies.

MARK HEASMAN, CEO, Ormiston Families London: My name is Mark Heasman. I run a children’s charity in London. It’s a delightful country. So far, we have been in Reykjavik. But we’re now just about to go out on a three-week expedition around the interior, so we can’t wait to get away from the people.

MALCOLM BRABANT: We met Heasman in the Thingvellir National Park, another destination on the Golden Circle route. It’s a World Heritage Site and place of great national importance to Icelanders as a legendary meeting point throughout the centuries.

MARK HEASMAN: This particular point seems really crowded, actually, for somewhere that’s so special and so unique. It’s actually a bit disappointing to see it full of tourists. But then people need to see it, I guess.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Fishing used to be Iceland’s most important industry. But it’s now been overtaken by tourism, which accounts for a third of all of the country’s foreign currency earnings. Since 2010, there’s been between a 25 percent to 30 percent increase in the number of visitors each year.

And so, this year, 2016, looks like being a record season, with government agencies predicting 1.8 million arrivals.

IAN SYKES, Former Tourism Lecturer: My name is Ian Sykes. I’m a retired lecturer in hospitality and tourism from Scotland. And I now live in Iceland just outside Reykjavik with my wife. And I run a guest house here.

I believe Iceland really needs to get a grip of tourism. Get a hold of it. And if it really hurts, actually, it might hurt. Just control the numbers and get everything sorted. At the moment, it’s just more and more tourists and money in the till, without a real thought to the future.

OLOF YRR ATLADOTTIR: I think that the growth has been very rapid. And it is very challenging to meet such a rapid growth. And, yes, we have had growing pains, yes. However, Iceland is still full of spots where you can still enjoy the solitude.

There are a few places that become like other most popular tourism destinations, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or these hot spots. They tend to become crowded in Iceland, as in other places. But Iceland still provides the possibility for a very singular experience.

GUNNAR THOR JOHANNESSON, University of Iceland: My name is Gunnar Thor Johannesson. I’m a professor in geography and tourism at the University of Iceland, Reykjavik.

My specialty is tourism development, tourism policy and planning, and destination development. We need to invest, like, in soft things like knowledge. We need to invest in education and training. We need to invest in — also in concrete and steel. We need to invest — like, in the road system.

We know that some of the more serious challenges that tourism is facing is that simply that some of the infrastructure in some of the hot spots of tourism is not strong enough.

IAN SYKES: The radical kind of answer would be to put a ceiling on the number of people that come, until we’re really quite happy that we have the infrastructure to cope, because, at the moment, people are coming on short three-day holidays, enjoy Iceland, but are going away saying fantastic country, but it’s expensive, and there are no toilets, and it’s all crowded.

OLOF YRR ATLADOTTIR: I actually don’t think that’s very possible, because that it would mean putting a cap on private enterprise in a way, in a very strange sort of way.

And I don’t think that I would believe in that. But I do think that we can both organize and plan certain destinations within Iceland. And, of course, if we look towards the industry, which is a very wide industry, has very, very many aspects, and I think that in a way we can maybe organize the tourism so it grows, as I say, more harmoniously.

HALLDOR MAR, Graphic Design Student: My name is Halldor Mar. I’m a graphic design student. And I’m about to get booted out of my home because of Airbnb.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The shortage of hotels and guest houses in Iceland has led to an explosion of residents renting out their homes to tourists using the Airbnb Web site.

Halldor Mar doesn’t believe that new legislation tightening the rules on Airbnb rentals will help potential tenants. He claims that future rent may account for 70 percent of his earnings, which tempers his enthusiasm for the tourist influx.

HALLDOR MAR: They’re taking away our homes, you know? It’s good that they’re coming. But it’s not really their fault. I don’t think they’re aware of the problem. But the landlords, just everybody here wants to make money and get into the market, tourism market. And that’s the problem.

ASHILDUR BRAGADOTTI, Director, Visit Reykjavik: Hi. My name is Ashildur Bragadotti. And I’m the director of Visit Reykjavik.

We are not facing any problems, in my opinion. But, of course, we have to be concerned because the growth has been so much, more than anyone could have expected. And there are some challenges that we’re facing because of that. It takes, like, two to three years to build a hotel.

Therefore, Airbnb has become more common in Reykjavik, and that’s something that — a question that we’re facing now. Are there too many citizens lending out their houses?

GUNNAR THOR JOHANNESSON: I think it’s also positive not to ban Airbnb altogether. Now we have a limit. So, it’s a 90-day period that you are able to rent out, or a certain amount of income that you’re able to have before you have to apply for a license. And this means that actually normal people are able actually to take part in this boom, this tourism boom.

HALLDOR MAR: This country is not for Icelanders anymore. It’s more for tourists. I’m looking at maybe we just have to move abroad. And this is going to be a tourists’ country, rather than Iceland. Let’s call it Tourist Land, rather than Iceland, from now on, I guess.

IAN SYKES: The tourism will drop off within the next three years. The numbers will stabilize. I don’t think they’re going to reach the numbers they think. And then there’s going to be a kind of oversupply, and people are going to kind of start to go bankrupt, basically, because they’re going to be cut-pricing each other.

STEPHEN GILLES, American Tourist: My name is Stephen Gilles. I’m a student at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and also a world traveler.

What moves me about Iceland is that there’s such little pollution, unlike a lot of the other places that I have been in the world. I just came from Dubai, and we went into the middle of the desert. And I was still finding pollution, plastic, rubbish. And you come here, and you go to the middle of nowhere, and you won’t find that. It’s unspoiled. It’s surreal.

MALCOLM BRABANT: And in Northern Iceland, this whale-watching trip delivered what it promised, the majestic and rare sight of normally solitary humpbacks feeding in pairs.

Despite the downside of high prices and crowds, the island is unforgettable.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant in Iceland.

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