Anna Dóra Sæþórsdóttir is a Professor in Tourism Studies at the Faculty of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Iceland. She is also Head of the faculty. Her main research interests are nature-based tourism, tourists’ experiences, wilderness, tourism management and land-use conflicts between tourism and the power production industry.
In her keynote talk, she will discuss the myths and realities related to overtourism in Iceland. Large influxes of tourist arrivals have become a major challenge in recent years for many nature-based destinations across the World. Seasonality, uneven spatial distribution and imbalance between supply and demand are commonly pointed out as parts of the problem.
In recent years, the concept of overtourism has emerged in mainstream and social media and increasingly in academia as a way of describing this situation, although the issues have been addressed by tourism research for many years. Iceland is one of the destinations which has been most associated with the concept of overtourism – at least in the international media discourse. This reflects the enormous increase in international tourist arrivals the country has experienced in the last decade. In 2010 the number of international visitors to Iceland was about 460,000. By 2018 it had reached approximately 2.3 million, representing an annual average growth of about 22 %.
Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe, with about 350,000 inhabitants on an island little over one hundred thousand square kilometers. Iceland’s main tourist attraction is nature, with its perceived wilderness landscape and dramatic geological features and elements.
There are a handful of tourist hotspots on the island, which up to half of all international tourists visit. This has resulted in crowding at the most popular destinations which has led to loss in the quality of the experiences, overloaded infrastructure, damage at nature destinations and shifts in the perceived nature of the Icelandic landscape.
Anna Dora’s presentation is based on longitudinal research conducted on tourists’ experience of overcrowding at various nature destinations in Iceland over two decades, in which time over 43,000 questionnaires have been completed and in-depth interviews conducted with several hundred tourists.
This allows a detailed empirical assessment to be made of changes in visitor attitudes, experiences, perceptions and satisfaction with specific locations in Iceland and the development of a broader understanding of Iceland as a nature-based tourism destination over time. The latter include changes in the make-up of tourist’s attitudes and behavior, and shifts in the management challenges nature-based destinations are facing. Finally, Iceland’s various responses to its success as a major nature tourist destination will be discussed.
At the time this abstract was written, late November 2019, it seems that the party is over (at least for now) as the number of international tourist arrivals has decreased more than 15% from the previous year. While this accidental degrowth is highly appreciated by some, it worries others, not least the tourism industry. For them core questions arise including does this mean that Iceland is not on the “bucket list” anymore? Did the island become too famous and fashionable? Is overtourism over for Iceland?
However, for visitor management and tourism research it also allows other sets of questions and issues to be raised. About the importance of long-term visitor research and characteristics of longitudinal studies; how we understand the nature of change in destinations and how research should be best communicated at a time when nature and wilderness is facing more challenges than ever from tourism and environmental change.