Return to Iceland

September 7, 2015

Blood Dirt & Angels’ peripatetic correspondents Jack and Marcia Schnedler are on the loose again. They’re gallivanting to Iceland, France and Italy on the occasion of their (gasp!) 50th wedding anniversary.
Jack’s stories and Marcia’s photographs will arrive sporadically, so brace yourself. Here’s the first pitch:Tourism: Economic savior,cultural menace — or both?

By Jack Schnedler
for blood, dirt & angels

On our post-industrial planet, tourism is often seen as the last resort (pun intended) for economic survival. That’s true in Arkansas, as witness locales like Eureka Springs and Hot Springs — and across the planet.

But for destinations such as Iceland that have hit the visitor jackpot in recent years, the swarm of travelers can turn out to be a rather mixed blessing.

Back on this mid-Atlantic island for five days, after a glorious three-week drive last year around the entire coast of a land mass smaller than Arkansas, wife Marcia and I are starting a four-week European journey to mark our 50th wedding anniversary. Egad and gadzooks!

Tourists take a selfie at the geothermal site of Seltun in southwest Iceland. photo by Marcia Schnedler

Tourists take a selfie at the geothermal site of Seltun in southwest Iceland. photo by Marcia Schneler

We leaped into marriage at age 22, so we’re not doddering yet — tottering, maybe, but not doddering. On the way to Paris and Venice, we’re giving Iceland just a once-over this time, based in Reykjavik where two-thirds of this nation’s 340,000 humans live. They are said to read the most books per capita of any country on the planet (maybe because of the long, cold, dark winters).

Having hosted a dribble of 60,000 foreign visitors a year as recently as 1980, they’re now awash in 1.4 million foreigners annually as recovery from the Iceland’s 2008 banking debacle continues. That’s a lot of revenue, but also a lot of intrusion on a formerly isolated and homogeneous population.

We arrived just before midnight on one of the few trans-Atlantic flights (Icelandair from Boston) that does not involve landing at dawn in Europe after hours and hours of nocturnal tossing and turning aloft. Next morning, we hit the road in a rented Hyundai after a short night of airport-hotel sleep at Keflavik, built for America’s World War II effort.

While having coffee, we browsed the local English-language newspaper, a sprightly publication called The Reykjavik Grapevine — along the lines of Arkansas Times but much fatter and packed with advertisements. It featured a column by editor Haukur S. Magnusson headlined “Conflict, Strife, Turmoil, Majestic Waterfalls & Cute Puffins.”

As Magnusson described it, the tourism boom in Reykjavik has given a whack to Iceland’s dynamic pop-music culture of recent decades by bringing the conversion of former concert venues to hotels and souvenir shops. This has some locals riled, but the column opined that “there are no easy solutions to our current conundrum. Proposed ones, such as seeking to limit the numbers of travelers that are admitted to the country, or changing priorities or marketing to appeal only to the wealthy demographics, seems mostly elitist and wrong.”

An earthier problem produced by Iceland’s tourist onslaught was addressed in an indignant letter to the editor, focused on “the tourist defecation issue.”

One staple of travel here is exploring the spectacular natural settings of this volcanic island. And apparently the swelling volume of hikers and other intrepid visitors now far exceeds the availability of toilet facilities in national parks and other remote locations. So one result is the depositing of human waste helter and skelter around scenic sites and along hiking trails.

The letter writer suggested the mass deployment of “a clean mobile public toilet that also from a design point of view fits into the wonderful Icelandic scenery.” The editor’s responded that “you can’t blame the locals for getting a little spooked as they face the exponential growth of Iceland’s tourism industry on a daily basis, with all the minor growing pains that entails.”

A cafe in the Icelandic fishing town of Grindavik draws visitors on a cloudy afternoon. photo by Marcia Schnedler

A cafe in the Icelandic fishing town of Grindavik draws visitors on a cloudy afternoon. photo by Marcia Schnedler

Marcia and I are much enjoying Iceland in our first two days back, based at the comfortable downtown Hotel Fron. It’s true that parking for our rental car is even harder to find than last year, but the situation is not much worse than along President Clinton Avenue on a bustling Saturday night.

Our new adventures this time around have included a stop at the Iceland Phallological Museum, which professes to be the world’s only public exhibit showcasing the preserved male organs from scores of mammalian species, including homo sapiens. Stay tuned for a further report.

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