Iceland’s tourism boom: Where travellers outnumber locals five to one

Iceland’s tourism boom: The country where travellers outnumber locals five to one

“There are three things you are guaranteed in Iceland,” Magnus tells me, shortly after picking me up at the airport. “Good food, good coffee and bad hair days.”

Words by Ute Junker

Photos by

Originally published in Traveller

He’s not wrong. As soon as we step outside the airport, wild gusts of wind send my hair shooting in all directions. For the rest of my stay in Iceland, my hair will be almost permanently out of control. It’s just one of those things that happens in this part of the world.

A lot of people have been experiencing bad hair days lately. This tiny country is in the middle of a tourism boom. The 2 million tourists that visited Iceland last year outnumbered the locals by more than five to one. It is not hard to understand what draws so many visitors. Iceland has a surfeit of natural wonders, from mighty glaciers and geysers to no fewer than 10,000 waterfalls, from the double-tiered Gullfoss to Seljalandsfoss, where a walking trail takes you behind the cascading water.

It doesn’t take me long to decide that Iceland’s biggest attraction, however, is its people. Icelanders have a distinctively quirky world view. Perhaps that is what comes from living on an isolated island which is in darkness for half the year, a place where the average summer temperature is about 13 degrees. (In a clothing store window in Reykjavik, I see the following slogan stencilled on the window: “Waiting for summer since 1926.”)

Icelanders, Magnus tells me, have learned to roll with the punches. “When the first settlers arrived here, around [the year] 871, 97 per cent of the island was covered with trees,” he explains. That was before a 400-year ice age and 250 years of repeated volcanic eruptions changed the landscape into the bare, flat, treeless landscape of today. (“What do you do if you get lost in Icelandic forest?” Magnus asks me one day. When I can’t come up with the answer, he supplies it. “You stand up.”)

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