Icelandic tourism

Almannagja, 1862, sketch by A. J. Symington

Almannagja, 1862, sketch by A. J. Symington

So, you are going to Iceland this summer. Dropping from the sky to Keflavik, taking a bus ride to Reykjavik, staying at a hotel with fine food and comfortable beds. A bus will take you on the Golden Circle. It will be air conditioned. You ride will be warm and dry.
However, when A. J. Symington went to the Geysers in 1862, it wasn’t so simple or so comfortable.

He lands from the steamer between 7 and 8 o’clock. He finds his “baggage and riding horses with the relays, twenty-four in all, assembled at the hotel court; Zöga, the guide, with his brother and a boy who were also to accompany us, busy adjusting saddles, stirrup straps, &c. For four days we shall be thrown entirely upon our own resources, so that provisions, tent, plaids and everything we are likely to need during a wilderness journey, must be taken with us. Our traps had been sent on shore late on the previous evening. The mode of loading the sumpter ponies is peculiar; a square piece of dried sod is placed on the horses back, then a wooden saddle with several projecting pins is girded on with rough woolen ropes; to either side of the saddle, is hooked on, a strong oblong wooden box generally painted red; while on the pins are hung bags, bundles, and all sorts of gipsy looking gear. These need frequent re-adjustment from time to time; as the ponies trot along, one side will weigh up the other, or the animals get jammed together and knock their loads out of equilibrium, the saddles then perhaps turn round and articles fall rattling to the ground. The strong little boxes are constructed and other arrangements made with a view to such contingencies, and however primitive, rude or outlandish they may at first seem to the stranger, he will soon come to see the why and the wherefore, and confess their singular adaptation to the strange and unique exigences of Icelandic travel.
The baggage train at length moved off, accompanied by the relief ponies, which were tied together in a row, the head of the one to the tail of the other before it.“

“The road terminated when we reached the outskirts of the town and the track lay over a wild black stony waste with little or no vegetation;‘ everything seemed scorched. The relay ponies were now loosed from each other, and perfectly free, driven before us.“

“They were apt to scatter in quest of herbage, but Zöga, when h is call was not enough or the dogs negligent, quickly out-flanked the stragglers, upon which, they, possessed by a salutary fear of his whip, speedily rejoined t heir fellows.”

1862. Ten years before the exodus to Amerika really begins. Iceland is still without roads, without wheeled vehicles, travel is slow and arduous. There is one bridge in the country. Rivers must be forded and often these are filled with glacial debris that can knock a horse off its feet, knock a rider into the current. Ferries are little more than row boats. A Reykjavik guide will have to enlist the aid of local people to keep his charges on their path and over a river.

Symington is part of the transition that is happening with travelers coming to Iceland. Sailing ships are giving way to steam ships. The prohibitive costs of having to rent or buy a yacht, hire a crew, are being replaced by advertised fares.

Iceland is still exotic, off the beaten path, requires the ability to ride a horse for days on end, sleep in churches and tents, cook over an open fire. Although the scientists, the explorers are being replaced by the curious, the flood of tourists has not yet begun. However, the stream has started and will, as the years go by, increase until Iceland is overrun by tourists. Nine hundred thousand tourists are expected to visit Iceland in 2015. This, in a country of just over three hundred thousand people.

Tourism was once considered pollutionless economics but nothing could be further from the truth. Nine hundred thousand people walk on the soil, use toilets, create waste from fuel used for cooking to food remnants, from exhaust from vehicles, from everything they do during their stay. Tourism is the classical example of privatizing profits and socializing costs. Those people who benefit from tourists, tour operators, airlines, restaurants, gift shops, and others make the profits but everyone pays to deal with tourist pollution.

The Blue Lagoon now requires a booking be made. Here, on the West Coast of Canada what, at one time seemed impossible, The West Coast Trail, one of the great hikes through wilderness, now requires a booking be made. The very people who come to admire and experience the uniqueness of Iceland and the West Coast of Canada threaten to destroy both.

The steam ship, then the commercial airplane, cheap travel, have made it possible for all of us to be world travelers. However, our travel changes, often dramatically, the cultures we travel to. The Iceland Symington visited had to change, had to pull itself out of the Medieval Age, had to become more involved with the larger world. Yet, reading his book, Faroe and Iceland, it is hard not to be nostalgic for the world he experienced and, ironically, wish it could be shared and, once again, gives its uniqueness to this traveler but not all those others.

Change is inevitable. Perhaps, though, it is by admitting that tourism cannot be limitless without destroying that which the tourists admire, that we can preserve our historic, geologic and cultural treasures.