There’s a place in Iceland where you can see the northern lights any time of year, regardless of the weather. You don’t have to ride a snowmobile into the mountains or rent a glass-roofed igloo. You don’t even need a winter jacket.
Leaning back in my recliner, I gaze upward at the ethereal reds, greens, and blues arcing across the sky, wavering like alien signals, an extraterrestrial message that we don’t know how to decode. I’m struck by their closeness. The bands of color appear right above me, like I could reach out and pass my hand through them.
These northern lights are glowing at 1 p.m. on an 8K resolution screen inside a well-heated IMAX planetarium at Perlan, a natural history museum set on a hill above downtown Reykjavik. Every hour on the hour the planetarium plays Áróra, a 22-minute-long documentary with footage of the lights taken from all over Iceland. The screen’s pixel density is so high that it runs up against the limits of what the human eye can perceive. The digital image might be clearer than reality. It’s definitely more convenient. All you need is a $20 ticket.
Places like Perlan — magnets for visitors and secondary representations of the country’s natural charms — are increasingly a necessity for Iceland, which in recent years has become synonymous with the term “overtourism.” Overtourism is what happens to a place when an avalanche of tourists “changes the quality of life for people who actually live there,” says Andrew Sheivachman, an editor at the travel website Skift, whose 2016 report about Iceland established the term. In other words, Sheivachman says, “a place becomes mainstream.” Iceland has about 300,000 residents, but it received more than 2.3 million overnight visitors last year. Tourists have flooded the island, crashing their camper vans in the wilderness, pooping in the streets of Reykjavik, and eroding the scenic canyon Fjaðrárgljúfur, where Justin Bieber shot a music video in 2015, forcing it to close temporarily. No wonder the museum is safer.
Overtourism also comes with a kind of stigma signified by that word “mainstream.” A reputation for excessive crowds means the tastemaking travel elite actually start avoiding a place, like a too-popular restaurant. “The early-adopter travelers are already onto the next cool, cheap, relatively intact place,” Sheivachman says. Since the Skift article, the term has been widely applied to places like Barcelona, Venice, and Tulum to suggest that no one who’s in the know would want to go there anymore.
Such is the case with Iceland. From 2013 to 2017 the country saw tourist numbers rising more than 20 percent annually, but in 2018 and for projections into the near future, it looks more like 5 percent. There’s a sense that the tourists took all the Instagrams of waterfalls and glaciers they wanted and then left, leaving the Icelandic economy vulnerable. In 2017, 42 percent of the country’s export revenue was tourism, meaning that Iceland’s biggest product, larger than its fishing and aluminum industries, is itself. There are both too many tourists and not enough; Wow Air, one of the major conduits of Icelandic tourism, declared bankruptcy in March after an unsustainable expansion.
While traveling in Iceland this spring to talk to Icelanders about the boom and subsequent slowdown, however, I began to doubt the concept of overtourism itself. The stigma of overtourism is contingent on the sense that a place without as many tourists is more real, more authentic, than it is with them. It poses tourists as foreign entities to a place in the same way that viruses are foreign to the human body. From the visitor’s side, overtourism is also a subjective concern based on a feeling: It’s the point at which your personal narrative of unique experience is broken, the point at which there are too many people — like yourself — who don’t belong in a place.
There are more tourists now than ever before: The World Tourism Organization counted 1.4 billion international tourists in 2018 and predicts 1.8 billion by 2030. In terms of creating new tourists, developing countries are growing the fastest. Even the Icelandic “collapse,” as Bloomberg described it, seems to be more of a pause; Wow Air plans to relaunch late this year. If fully one-fifth of humanity are traveling away from home, then how foreign are tourists, after all? Tourism is not a localized phenomenon that we encounter in crowded piazzas and then leave but an omnipresent condition, like climate change or the internet, that we inhabit all the time. Maybe we need to accept it.
Watching Áróra in Perlan’s theater, I sit in the dark surrounded by empty seats while a disembodied female narrator with an Icelandic accent explains how the various colors of the northern lights come from the vibrations of different atmospheric gases hit by electrons. It strikes me that it doesn’t matter that I’m not seeing the actual northern lights; the season ended just before my arrival anyway. I am here in Iceland — surely that makes it a little more real than seeing it in New York? And besides, I’m not damaging any glaciers or emitting gas fumes. In the era of overtourism, the digital display isn’t just responsible. It’s authentic.
Iceland might be the modern symbol of overtourism, but it was hardly the first or only victim of tourists. The tradition of the Grand Tour started around the 17th century: British nobility would take a spin around the classical sites of the European continent after university, before settling down. Hordes of young men traipsed through Italy, returning with oil portraits of themselves amid castles or ruins to document the journey for their friends back home. In a journal published in 1766, the Scottish author Tobias Smollett complained of carriages packed with travelers on the Tour route: You “run the risk of being stifled among very indifferent company.” In Rome, Smollett also observed his compatriots acting badly:
“[A] number of raw boys, whom Britain seemed to have poured forth on purpose to bring her national character into contempt: ignorant, petulant, rash, and profligate without any knowledge or experience of their own.”
It’s an 18th-century description of overtourism that’s still applicable today. But now the scale is vast and extreme, a hyperobject of loutishness enabled by cheap flights and social media. Tourists seem to be ruining tourism everywhere. Geographical places have been reduced to disposable trends.
Over the past year, headlines have presented a litany of the absurd ways that we’re wrecking the places we attempt to appreciate. Indonesia’s Komodo Island considered closing because people keep stealing the lizards; Greece’s Santorini posted signs asking visiting Instagrammers to stop trespassing on scenic rooftops; selfie-takers ruined fields of tulips in the Netherlands as well as California’s poppy super bloom; and Peru instituted timed tickets to Machu Picchu to stop the archaeological site from being trampled into nonexistence.
The crowds can even cause a kind of overtourism rage. Last year, two visitors beat each other up trying to take photos at Rome’s Trevi fountain and local protestors stormed a tourist bus in Barcelona, agitating against the invasion of the city by travelers. Venice, the most tragic victim of overtourism, recently instituted a new entrance tax to compensate for the damage the sinking city suffers; each visitor requires a daily fee of €3 to €10, depending on the expected traffic.
The pace of tourism fads also seems to have accelerated. One year the popular place to go is Berlin, the next it’s Iceland, then Lisbon, Bali, Mexico City, Dubrovnik, or Athens. Suddenly everyone is Instagramming from the same place, reproducing the same cliche images. In part, the speed is because of media, both print and digital. Travel and lifestyle magazines have long sold the dream of the next hot destination, from Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure to GQ, Vogue, and Monocle. The New York Times’ “36 Hours In…” and “52 Places to Go” series instantly become #goals. Guides published by Eater (also owned by Vox Media), Goop, and the content farm Culture Trip occupy online search results.
These tips expire quickly in the age of overtourism; you have to follow them while the spots are still semi-obscure in order to cash in your cultural capital — before they’re pictured on Tinder profiles above the words “Travel is my life.” Tourism is competitive. “The places where the magazine editors go, they’re quick to turn them into something, then quick to declare them over,” says Colin James Nagy, head of strategy at the agency Fred & Farid and a travel tastemaker himself. “In Tulum, that happened in five years.” New York magazine declared the Mexican beach town “dead” in February 2019. Nagy suggests instead Denmark’s Faroe Islands, Todos Santos in Mexico, and Dakar, Senegal, as up-and-comers. No doubt they’ll be deemed dead soon, too.
The ephemeral trendiness — travel as fast fashion — is part of a structural change in the tourism industry, according to Stanislav Ivanov, professor of tourism economics at Bulgaria’s Varna University of Management. Centuries ago, Grand Tour trips would take up to three years; you could stay in Rome for six to eight weeks alone. In the 20th century, traditional travel agents and tour operators offered pre-packaged trips that encouraged a sense of loyalty to particular places or hospitality brands, which tourists would return to repeatedly. There was less variety and more consistency. But since the 2000s, any traveler can easily use an “online travel agency,” or OTA, like Expedia or Booking.com and visit a new place every holiday. “People are collecting destinations,” Ivanov says. “Loyalty is not toward the hotels or destinations but toward the distributors.”
Plug in your travel dates and an OTA will serve you a long list of possible flights from various carriers, plus bonus car and hotel rentals and activity suggestions. OTAs were once cheaper and considerably smoother than direct booking; many companies have since upgraded their digital services, but the preference for OTAs remains. In the end, the service is less personalized and more automated.
Operating at a massive scale with call centers full of staff who may not know much about a traveler’s destination, OTAs end up serving the same itineraries over and over, according to Skarphéðinn Berg Steinarsson, the director-general of the Icelandic Tourism Board and a vehement critic of the digital platforms. They create what he calls a “top 10” list effect, reducing a country or city to a series of boxes to check off. OTAs “don’t give a damn about what’s really happening” in a place, Steinarsson says. “They are just shoveling out packages.”
The problem is particularly acute in Iceland because so much of its tourism is routed through packaged bus trips; charting your own route with a rental car is both more expensive and more forbidding due to the weather, terrain, and not-insignificant chance of, say, getting stuck in a river. So visitors are most likely to succumb to convenience and take a spin around the Golden Circle, a 190-mile loop through the southern uplands that features the geysers, waterfalls, and rocky cliffs that everyone posts on Instagram or Facebook — the same spots that are sustaining the most damage. “If you go to Iceland, you have to do that list. ‘Go onto our site, it’s on the front screen, just take out your credit card, pay, get it over with, and start enjoying,’” Steinarsson says. “How deep do you have to dig before you start seeing places that would really be something special?”
Where we go and how we get there are increasingly influenced by a series of digital platforms — not just big OTAs, but Airbnb, Yelp, and Instagram — that prioritize engagement over originality. Overtourism is a consequence, not a cause. The more often a particular destination or package proves successful, the more users a site’s algorithm will drive to it, intensifying the problem by pushing travelers to have the same experiences as one another on a single beaten track around the globe, updated and optimized in real time. When one spot gets too crowded and its novelty used up, the next is slotted into its place.
For my trip, I decide to take the path of least resistance, relying on OTAs and recommendation sites to tell me exactly what to do — a tourist experience as well as an experience of tourism. It is indeed frictionless. I book an apartment in downtown Reykjavik through Airbnb and day-trips through Arctic Adventures, a local OTA. I buy tickets for a tour of Game of Thrones shooting locations and a day-long Golden Circle trip that hits all the main spectacles. Every activity seems to be rated 4.5 stars out of 5 or above. Weeks before my Icelandair flight, I’m algorithmically bombarded on YouTube by hypnotic pre-roll ads for the northern lights.
On the plane, I’m forced to watch a three-minute trailer for Iceland before I can even access the entertainment system. The flight map shows me why the country is such a tourism target. The frozen ovoid island is like a period in a chain of ellipses linking North America to the United Kingdom, Europe, and Scandinavia, making it a perfect stopover point. Iceland has no native inhabitants; in a sense, everyone has been a tourist since Norwegian and Swedish Viking sailors started accidentally landing there in the ninth century and settled when they found out the summer wasn’t so bad. Anything that exists on the island is a result of its visitors, making it difficult to determine where the “real” Iceland ends and where tourism begins.
Almost every flight passes through Keflavik airport outside Reykjavik, by far the largest city, which functions like a fire hose, spitting out tourists. Icelandair has been offering free layovers through Keflavik since 1955 but only began marketing them aggressively in 1996 as it added destinations in North America, branding the country as a quick drop-in. The 2000s brought marketing campaigns including one with the euphemistic slogan “Fancy a dirty weekend in Iceland?” showing a photo of a couple with geothermal-bath mud on their faces.
In 2008, the financial crisis sunk Iceland’s previously expensive currency, which was terrible for Icelanders but great for tourism — the income from added visitors sped up economic recovery. “People were flocking there because it has a very high standard of living, it’s very beautiful, and now you could get it for one-third of the price,” Michael Raucheisen, Icelandair’s US-based communications manager for North America, tells me. Raucheisen, who flew Icelandair with his German father as a child, has worked at the company for two decades. “Nineteen years ago, people had no idea where Iceland was,” he says. “They thought Icelandair was an air-conditioning company.”
Iceland is also located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the crack between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, making it one of the most volcanic spots on earth. Beginning in the early 1900s, Icelanders harnessed this energy as geothermal and hydropower for heat and electricity, making it much more comfortable than in chilly centuries past. Ninety-nine percent of the primary energy use in Iceland now comes from local renewable sources. The countryside is dotted with natural hot springs and futuristic power plants, all gently leaking steam. The place is a planetary Juul. (Reykjavik’s name, given in 874, means “smoke cove.”)
A volcano was in fact the biggest spark for the tourism boom. In April 2010, Eyjafjallajökull erupted, grounding more European flights than at any time since World War II, though in Iceland its impact was limited to the evacuation of a few farms and about 800 people. The eruption put maps and videos of Iceland on primetime TV news around the world, which amounted to free advertising. “Even during the volcano, the rest of Iceland was clean and beautiful. It was like, ‘Oh, it’s there, I didn’t know that,’” says Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir, the cheerful director of the tourism initiative Visit Iceland. The eruption happened, by chance, just as Pálsdóttir was helping to launch the country’s biggest tourism marketing push yet. “It was basically crisis communication,” she says. Several weeks of her life blurred together, but the campaign succeeded.
Iceland became a year-round destination, not just the warm months. Summer had been peak season; now, more tourists come for winter and the “shoulder seasons” between peak and off-peak, thanks in part to marketing campaigns highlighting the northern lights, festivals, and outdoor activities. American tourists gradually surpassed the German and French groups that traditionally came for long hiking trips. Tourists from Asia are now the fastest-growing demographic.
My first stop after Keflavik is the Blue Lagoon, a short, sparsely filled bus ride away. It’s recognizable from photos: a luminous pool of bright-blue water, like an aqueous latte, set amid jagged black volcanic rocks. But rather than the idyllic natural hot spring it resembles on Instagram, it’s actually a kind of giant artificial bathtub filled with wastewater from a nearby geothermal power plant. The Svartsengi power plant opened in 1976 and its superheated liquid and steam bubbled up through the surrounding lava field; one psoriasis patient bathed in it and saw an improvement and thus a business began.
Blue Lagoon built a cement-bottomed pool that spreads out in a faux-organic layout and a clutch of modernist spa buildings. In 2017, the site accommodated 1.2 million visitors who buy timed entrance tickets and pay extra for bathrobes and drinks at the lagoon’s float-up bar. “Can you imagine how many people have sex in it?” the Icelandic politician Birgitta Jonsdottir later asks me. The 240°C water that gets pumped from deep underground is so mineral-heavy, however, that no bacteria can survive, even after it gets cooled down to bathing temperature for visitors to soak in.
I get a wristband for locker access and cash-free payments then make my way through the bustling locker rooms. Guards in all-black uniforms yell at guests for not showering nude and scrubbing down according to Icelandic hygiene, helpfully illustrated by explicit diagrams. The hot water is a fast cure for my jet lag but the lagoon feels like a crowded hot tub. The first thing I notice after I get a plastic goblet of prosecco and smear my face with some local silica — filtered out of seawater by precipitation and served up in a bucket — is just how international the crowd is. An Indian family snaps selfies, holding each other’s drinks. A German man asks me to take a photo of his friend and send it to him, maybe because I had followed the advice of travel blogs and squeezed my phone into a nerdy waterproof bag strung around my neck. I hear as much Chinese as English.
An American man floating by declaims to his friends, “Can you imagine if we built a concept like this in Las Vegas?” And that’s exactly what the Blue Lagoon is: a concept, a playground-Iceland that can be consumed at will, something packaged and branded as representative of the place despite its artificiality. (One Trip Advisor review deems it “expensive and fake.”)
The rest of the resort follows the same logic. When I begin feeling like a wobbly sous-vide egg I wade out of the water, shower again, and go inside for my reservation at Lava, an upscale restaurant where one wall is polished lava-rock and two others are floor-to-ceiling glass. Guests in the same white robes as mine dot the tables like hospital patients in a waiting room. I order the $50 two-course set menu that features local lamb. It tastes transcendentally gamey and like nowhere else on Earth, literally, because Icelandic sheep were first brought to the island 1,000 years ago and left alone to evolve in uniquely delicious ways.
The condition of overtourism pressures places to become commodities in the global marketplace the same way we warp our lifestyles to attract Instagram “Likes.” “You have to compete as a brand,” Pálsdóttir tells me. Countries and cities must constantly perform their identities in order to maintain the flow of tourists.
Icelandic tourism is a paradox. Visitors might outnumber locals, but the place must take care to preserve the brand of lonely natural grandeur that has become its product, offered up like a dish of roast lamb belly. The maintenance of this image is its own kind of artificiality. Fun fact: If an Icelandic horse ever leaves the island, it isn’t allowed to come back.
My Reykjavik Airbnb was listed on the website as a penthouse, but that’s not hard to achieve when few buildings are more than three stories tall. It’s polished and pleasantly anonymous without lacking personality entirely; above the TV there’s a giant photo print of the Brooklyn Bridge. From the balcony on one side I can see the white specter of Snæfellsjökull, a glacier-capped stratovolcano, across the chilled blue of Faxa Bay. On the other is downtown Reykjavik, like an overgrown ski town, with the skeletons of new hotels and high-rise glassy condos under construction on the outskirts.
Though Airbnb initially helped the growth of Icelandic tourism by housing visitors while development was only in planning, the government instituted a new regulation in January 2017 limiting most short-term rentals to 90 days a year; more than that and the owners need special certification. My place clearly falls into the latter category, since the owner rents out the building’s two penthouse apartments full-time and lives in a unit below them. The apartment is on a quieter stretch of the main shopping strip, Laugavegur, sprinkled with storefronts selling outdoor gear, souvenir puffin dolls, and Viking kitsch. It’s easy to tell tourists apart from the locals because they wear brightly colored Gore-Tex coats despite the relative warmth, and wander aimlessly, unsure of where they’re going. When I go out I try to wear a casual jacket and carry a tote bag instead of a backpack, wanting, illogically, to be disguised.
These days, Reykjavik is full of the kinds of signifiers that mark an “authentic” travel experience, at least according to the influencer set: artisanal coffee shops like Reykjavik Roasters, locavore restaurants like Skál, and shops with names like “Nomad.store” selling minimalist coffee-table books and scented candles. None of these things are bad, necessarily, but they’re also not particularly local to Iceland in the first place. Unlike Paris, for example, where the centuries-old urban culture is what attracts visitors, Reykjavik developed in tandem with tourism.
“I grew up in the city center and I remember the streets used to be empty. It was a small fraction of the cafes and restaurants you have now,” says Karen María Jónsdóttir, at the time the director of Visit Reykjavik, the marketing office for the city. We’re sitting in The Coocoo’s Nest, a homey farm-to-table bar-slash-restaurant in the harbor neighborhood, where old fishermen’s supply sheds are being turned into boutiques and food halls in a familiar flavor of industrial gentrification. We drink two fashionably non-alcoholic lemonade cocktails at the wood bar. Icelanders used to only go out on the weekends and shop at outlet malls outside the city; now things are open all week long. “You need a certain mass of people to [sustain] a selection of good restaurants and services for everybody,” Jónsdóttir says. “We all want the services but then we complain about the people using them.”
Gunnar Jóhannesson, a professor at the University of Iceland who studies tourism, tells me about a recent survey: the closer to the center of Reykjavik, the more positive locals are in their perception of tourists. We need to “re-humanize tourists and tourism,” Johannesson says. “It’s important to stop thinking about tourism as the other and realize that we are also tourists. Tourism is part of our society.” (After all, whenever Icelanders leave their small island, they’re tourists too: According to data sent to me by Visit Iceland, 83 percent of Icelanders traveled abroad for vacation in 2018.) There’s a “standardization” that follows global travel, the professor says, a wave of generically luxurious cafes, hotels, and food halls. “Maybe it’s a bit comforting. It shows that people like the same things.”
Perhaps the problem isn’t the actual tourists but the way that some people — international entrepreneurs and developers in particular — profit from the tourism industry while others don’t. In other words, extractive capitalism is at fault, causing gentrification and displacement. “When tourism grows out of proportion, when it starts to be based on and motivated by international capital but not the community’s values, then we might have a problem,” Johannesson says. “I don’t think it has gotten to that point in Iceland, but it easily can get there.” Of course, it’s easier to say that on an island with plenty of extant empty space than at a Barcelona market so crowded with people Instagramming produce that residents can’t actually shop there.
Whether the balance has already tipped in favor of capital depends on who you ask. One evening I open Yelp and search the city for natural wine bars, which are the latest international hipster shibboleth and the 2010s update to Thomas Friedman’s Golden Arches Theory of peace-via-globalization: Instead of McDonald’s, no two countries with natural wine bars will ever go to war with each other. I head to Port 9, down the alleyway of a residential complex. It’s a faux-industrial space with raw cement walls, hanging pendant lamps, and plush green-velvet banquettes, like every other cool bar. A piece by minimalist composer Steve Reich is playing. Wine connoisseurship is itself a recent import in Iceland; the country had a form of alcohol prohibition from 1915 to 1989, and beer is far more popular.
Sitting at the bar are two young men swirling glasses with the bartender. They are both musicians and graduate students in the whimsical, long-term manner enabled by Nordic socialism. They both recently moved back from Berlin, nostalgic for the Icelandic summer and nature in general. Markus Sigur Bjornsson is wiry and wry, dressed in streetwear, while Thorsteinn Eyfjord is taller, neck-scarved and more formal in manner. We discuss the state of the country over a funky Italian red pulled from under the bar. Bjornsson says he might not have ever left his home if it weren’t for exposure to tourists showing him that an outside world existed (Iceland is 93 percent Icelandic; the second largest demographic is Polish at 3 percent). “The tourism bubble, in 20 years we can look back and think, okay, this did more positive than negative to our society,” he says. In fact, as Elvar Orri Hreinsson, a research analyst at the Bank of Iceland, tells me, Iceland is more financially secure now than it used to be, even with the slowdown: The economy is more diversified, the central bank holds a large currency reserve, and foreign investors are more interested than ever.
Eyfjord is more pessimistic. Like most millennials, he feels a looming generational burden. If the bubble bursts, “we will have to take the blame and build up society again,” he says. But he has a plan. Without tourists, there will be a lot of empty hotels and Airbnbs. “I hope there will come a wave of squatting and the young people and artists will take over.” The spaces could be turned into affordable housing, art studios, and startup offices. “Then at least I can live alone without having to have help from my parents.”
The rise of isolationist nationalism might slow it and climate change, accelerated by every plane flight, will change its targets, but as a global growth industry tourism doesn’t seem likely to stop. We can’t return to a time when overtourism didn’t exist, and the desire to do so is as problematic as the concept of overtourism itself: there’s prejudice at work when wealthy, white Westerners have been tourists, if not colonizers, for centuries, but now that the rest of the world is joining in, it’s cast as excessive. Rather, the task left to us is to imagine a post-overtourism world in which we can all participate in and benefit from the human flow.
I meet Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the 52-year-old former Icelandic Parliamentarian and onetime friend of Julian Assange, in a Fleetwood Mac-soundtracked hostel cafe that she suggests near her apartment in a quieter area east of downtown. Across the street, children bounce on a trampoline. As the former face of Iceland’s Pirate Party, a loose, global coalition of digital freedom activists that was the most popular political party in the country between 2015 and 2016, Jonsdottir is something of a celebrity. Icelandic style is usually sober; she has purple-tinged eyelashes, iridescent nails, dyed-blonde hair, and a set of chunky, biomorphic rings, a contrast to her anonymous black winter jacket.
While in Parliament, she tried to pass a bill that would tax new hotels and direct the funds toward Reykjavik itself but was stymied “because people in the countryside wanted their share of it,” she says. The funding would fight what she calls the “Disneyfication” of Reykjavik as well as help safeguard the area’s natural sites. “A lot of places I hold sacred in nature, places I would go to get some energy, there are so many people, so noisy, so disrespectful to the space they’re in, that I don’t go there anymore. I just get very upset,” she says. “You do not become sympathetic to other people’s cultures just tracking through it like a horde of oxen.”
She thinks we might need a different kind of tourism altogether. Rather than her old favorite spots that are now overrun, these days Jonsdottir prefers exploring her own backyard garden, a choice that’s both quieter and less damaging. She plants potatoes, like her family did in the village where she grew up. “I have a different experience every day because of the weather and the way the plants grow,” she says. “Look at the crisis we’re in with our planet. It’s time that people go on trips in their own area and say goodbye to the diversity that is there.”
There’s a blank-slate quality to Iceland, extending to the freshness of the air itself. The place has spun stories around itself since the Vikings wrote down their Sagas, tales of family lineages and heroic deeds, in the 12th century — some of which went on to inspire a novelist named George R.R. Martin. The landscape has had many things projected upon it. “There are different layers to the fantasy of Iceland,” the Icelandic novelist Andri Magnason tells me over dinner at Snaps, an old-school French bistro beloved by locals down the street from Hallgrímskirkja, the wave-like, expressionist church that is one of Reykjavik’s best-known symbols. “The Sagas are one layer, Game of Thrones is another layer, maybe the economy is another.”
The fantasy can be the attraction. Early one morning I climb onto a coach bus familiar from childhood field trips for an eight-hour tour of Game of Thrones shooting locations. In the front of the bus sits our bearded guide, Theo Hansson, who is wearing a Night’s Watch outfit complete with faux-fur cape, drinking horn on his belt loop (I watch him fill it with coffee), and two actual swords, his long hair tied back with a bandana. Hansson explains that he worked as an extra on the show in various seasons playing a Watchman, an undead wight, and a wildling, braving thin costumes, recalcitrant horses, and very bad weather. Hansson speaks in a deep growl that’s half Hound rumble and half Littlefinger hiss; I assume it’s a put-on until he later speaks on the phone the same way, his voice shot from a day of narration. A Reykjavik native, in Hansson’s off-time he is an academic studying Viking history at the University of Iceland.
“I really, really hate tourists,” Hansson growls with feeling. “But you guys aren’t tourists. You’re Game of Thrones enthusiasts.” The tour happens the day after the finale of the television show, which I had stayed up very late Iceland time to watch, using a proxy to access American HBO. I’m the only one in the group to have done so, and so no one else is massively disappointed yet. I’m jealous.
On the bus are two-dozen other tourists, mostly American, including John and Marsha, an older couple from Buffalo, New York. They booked a free stopover through an OTA when it popped up as an option on their flights back home from Copenhagen, following a long cruise. “We never even thought of Iceland. I couldn’t even spell Reykjavik,” Marsha tells me. But it turned out their neighbor had just visited and loved it, then a woman they met on the Copenhagen flight suggested this specific tour. Marsha says she wishes they had planned to stay for a day longer.
Hansson swears a lot, tells repeated ex-girlfriend jokes, and puns incessantly. He’s had the gig since 2016. “This used to be a normal tour, then it became an R-rated tour,” he says. His humor has offended some groups, especially Germans, but his boss has been on the tour and loved it. In between anecdotes, we make our stops, like Thingvellir, where Vikings established Iceland’s first parliamentary government, the Althing, in the 10th century, in a ravine-ridden field where the earth is actively splitting apart. It’s also where Game of Thrones shot the Bloody Gate, an elaborate tiered guardhouse outside of the Eyrie castle, in season four. Hansson holds up laminated screenshots from the show that he printed out himself so that we can see the precise camera angle and observe that reality conforms to the image, except, of course, for the missing CGI gate. We ooh and aah.
Westeros is not a real place. Even the northern parts of the show were shot between Iceland, Scotland, and Ireland then spliced together as if they were contiguous. But we are tourists of the fiction regardless. Hansson brings us to Þjóðveldisbærinn Stöng, a replica of a Viking-era farm on a hilltop, where the show shot a Wildling raid. Hansson was in the scene; his job was to chase down a 6-year-old child. “I just kept stabbing her again and again and again. It was marvelous,” he says. Then he selects a volunteer from the audience and proceeds to demonstrate the stage-stabbing technique.
I drift away from the group and lean up against the grassy sod that covers the entire structure of the farmhouse to insulate it from the weather and cold. It starts to rain, but the grass shields me just enough so that I can look out into the gray mist over the surreal landscape, which stretches and pitches into hills and valleys like a skate park for giants. I feel briefly connected to some universal sentiment: the authentic dreariness of the Vikings and the Game of Thrones villagers alike.
My Golden Circle tour is more prosaic. I climb aboard another bus, this time filled with a group of quiet Norwegians and a single American family with two rambunctious kids; I’m the only solo traveler. Emil, the tour guide, has an affectless storytelling style, like a podcast of Wikipedia entries, much less appealing than Hansson’s profane patter. Whenever we stop, he seems more interested in talking to our otherwise silent driver, whose name he says is Gummy Bear, than explaining anything. On the itinerary is Thingvellir again, sans CGI; Geysir, the much-photographed clutch of geysers on a hillside; Gullfoss, an iconic waterfall; and the Secret Lagoon, a not-so-secret geothermal spring whose ironic slogan is “We Kept It Unique for You.”
Geysir actually refers to the single Great Geyser, but that one only erupts around earthquakes. The star of the show is Strokkur (Icelandic for “churn”), which explodes every 10 minutes or so, causing a great gasp from the assembled visitors. Rings of tourists face backward and lean over the boiling-hot water in order to take possibly fatal selfies. Footprints mark a trodden path in the muddy hill that winds around each pool.
More than a natural wonder, it’s now something of a highway rest-stop, grandiose in its attempt to cater to tourists. On the other side of the road from the geysers is a sprawling visitor center, featuring a huge store selling clothing from the brand Geysir, one of Iceland’s most recognizable fashion labels, named after the place itself. The food court offers pizza as well as fish and chips readymade under heat lamps. Next door is a newly developed spa hotel, geyser-themed. Compared to the infrastructure, the waterworks themselves seem even smaller and less remarkable. I recall Markus Bjornsson, the student in the wine bar: “If you’ve seen one geyser, you’ve seen them all.”
Gullfoss — Golden Falls — is a mammoth crack in the earth through which runs 140 cubic meters of water per second. The gathered force is like a nuclear bomb but all the time. There were attempts to turn the falls into a hydroelectric power plant, but the story goes that the daughter of one of the farmers who own the land mounted a charismatic protest and saved it. Now there’s a beaten trail with staircases and handrails along the lip of the canyon where we could look down and take photos. Patches of grass that draw even closer to the edge are blocked off with signs. (“If you fall over, it’s impossible to find you, you’re just gone,” Skarphéðinn Berg Steinarsson of the ITB tells me.) We stand with our phones in front of our faces, the surging water too massive to consider as reality, as anything other than a picture that we can save to show friends later, shorn of its existential dread. I think of Don DeLillo’s description of “the most photographed barn in America” in his novel White Noise: “No one sees the barn.”
In the face of overtourism, I want to make an argument for the inauthentic. Not just the spots flooded with tourists but the simulations and the fictions, the ways that the world of tourism supersedes reality and becomes its own space. It is made up of the digital northern lights on an 8K movie screen, the manmade turquoise geothermal baths, and the computer renderings of high-budget television shows overlaid on the earth. I don’t regret any of these activities; in fact, the less authentic an experience was supposed to be in Iceland, the more fun I had and the more aware I was of the consequences of 21st-century travel.
This is not to discount the charm of hiking an empty mountain or the very real damage that tourists cause, disrupting lives and often intensifying local inequality. But maybe by reclaiming these experiences, or destigmatizing them, we can also begin regaining our agency over the rampant commodification of places and people. We can travel to see what exists instead of wishing for some mythical untouched state, the dream of a place prepared perfectly for visitors and yet empty of them. Instead of trying to “live like a local,” as Airbnb commands, we can just be tourists. When a destination is deemed dead might be the best time to go there, as the most accurate reflection of our impure world.
Back at my Airbnb, I call Theo Hansson to see what he thought of the end of Game of Thrones. He was, like me, dissatisfied. “I’m very glad I was not a part of the last season. It would have soured everything,” he says. He doesn’t expect his gig to last forever. In 2016, “I was doing groups of 40 or 50 people to 100 people. It’s gotten a lot less,” he tells me in a low, hoarse rumble. “I’m expecting maybe two years more of this. The engine is going to fade.” Game of Thrones will drift away like the other narratives, maybe faster than slower.
Hansson’s other sideline, making use of his academic background, is being a Viking reenactor. He’s in a group of 200 people, not just born-and-bred Icelanders, who train in sword-fighting, archery, and crafts. They camp out for a week at a time, wearing period-correct clothing and sleeping in Viking tents based on archaeological discoveries. They fight, cook food over open fires, and get very drunk.
This is what refreshes him, participating in the illusion of another life, which is the same thing that we’re always seeking when we travel: to get outside of ourselves and imagine new possibilities, however unlikely or unreal they are. Iceland remains ideal for this purpose. “It’s what fantasies are made of,” Hansson says. “This untamed wild, this alien landscape, this vastness.”