Getting around the crowds in Iceland

IF “OVERTOURISM” has become a red flag for the global travel industry, Iceland is a prime example. Visitor numbers have grown an average 32 per cent annually since 2012. The country gets seven visitors for every local, with travel now contributing more than 10 per cent to gross domestic product, making it the largest economic sector.

Some Icelandic sites are at risk of closing, or have closed, like Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon featured in a Justin Bieber music video. (Even if tourism numbers are forecast to drop by about 16 per cent in 2019 after the recent bankruptcy of Wow Air.)

That is, of course, if you’re going where everyone else goes.

“People feel that all of Iceland is crowded … but that’s like saying a rock concert is fully booked when there are 50 people in the front row and no one in the back,” says Runar Karlsson, head guide for Borea Adventures, one of a handful of outfitters helping to redistribute tourist traffic to the country’s less-known corners.

Rather than have his visitors stay in pricey Reykjavik hotels and crowd around the Golden Circle on day trips, he focusses on Iceland’s stunning Westfjords, which receives only 12 per cent of the country’s peak-season tourist traffic.

The city skyline in Reykjavik, Iceland

So if you don’t also want to fall into what Karlsson characterises as influencer-inspired Instagram bucket lists (Beiber, again) and the lopsided marketing of a handful of key sites, here’s how to do Iceland right.

– Instead of focussing on landscapes, focus on locals: “Four years ago, Instagram had 800,000 photos with the Iceland hashtag,” says Gunnar Gunnarsson, a professional photographer who focusses on Iceland’s frigid landscapes. “Today that number is over 12 million.” He says it’s the result of cash-poor operators and freebie-seeking influencers creating an arbitrary, sometimes destructive echo chamber of “Insta-famous” and “must-visit” sites.

All this overlooks Iceland’s delightfully quirky culture. The people can be just as memorable as those ethereal fjords. For example, Herdis Fridriksdottir’s family-run business, Understand Iceland, is making a name for itself by setting up culturally immersive adventures, such as dying wool and knitting with village women.

– Instead of international white-glove operators, support small businesses: Even though most white-glove travel agencies use the same inbound operators to source their “exclusive” experiences, small Icelandic tourism outfits are surprisingly high-quality and easy to reach online. The only catch is that they’re often buried under a few pages of Google search results.

Take Midgard Adventure, a mountaineering company based in the unassuming southern township of Hvolsvollur. Book its Super Jeep tour of the Icelandic outback’s hidden gorges and glaciers, and you may well end up at your guide’s house for lamb stew.

Additionally, both Local Guide and From Coast to Mountain deliver on their names, focusing on staffers’ childhood favourite sites such as the great ice caves of Vatnajokull National Park. The Wilderness Centre tops many insiders’ lists for its unique hikes, which can culminate at one-of-a-kind accommodations such as traditional turf homes from the early 1800s.

– Instead of transferring to Reykjavik, go south: Though few first-timers realise it, most flights to Iceland land in Keflavik, an hour southwest of the country’s biggest city. Reykjavik is roughly the same size as Rochester, Minnesota. It’s charming, but skippable.

If seeing the capital is non-negotiable, cap your time there at 25 per cent of your visit. Otherwise, head straight to the south coast, where you can stay in contemporary chalets, chic farmhouses, and small hotels. “Most of the tourists I see spend four, five, even six hours a day driving to and from Reykjavik to walk on the glacier at Solheimajokull or visit the lagoon at Jokulsarlon. It completely baffles me,” says Icelandic expedition leader Sigurdur Bjarni Sveinsson. Plus, when you’re based in the countryside, you don’t need to sign up for a northern lights tour-you can just look out the window.

– Instead of dining in the capital, eat in the countryside: “The eastern region has really started to come into its own as a culinary destination,” says Carolyn Bain, co-author of the Lonely Planet guide to Iceland. Case in point: Kari Thorsteinsson, the chef de cuisine at Dill in Reykjavik, the first restaurant in Iceland to receive a Michelin star, is about to open a new concept in Egilsstadir focusing on local product and wild game. The area is also home to restaurants such as Skriduklaustur and its haute twists on Icelandic home cooking, the Japanese-inspired Nord Austur, and Vallanes, which sources high-quality grains and more than 80 varieties of vegetables from its own farm.

– Instead of Gullfoss, choose any other waterfall: A photo of Gullfoss, or “Gold Waterfall,” aptly positioned along the Golden Circle, is one of the snaps most tourists are compelled to tick off their bucket lists, even though more than 10,000 chutes are scattered around the country. Two worth prioritising are the bundt cake-shaped Dynjandi in the Westfjords and Aldeyjarfoss, with its organ-pipe basalt columns; they see a fraction of Gullfoss’s tourist traffic and are just as photogenic, if not more so.

– Instead of Blue Lagoon, visit the Retreat: There’s a certain Disneyland quality to Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s famous silica-rich swimming experience. An entrepreneur’s vision turned the boiling runoff from a geothermal power station into what’s now essentially an expensive, scenic bath with a swim-up bar (entrance starts at USD59). It’s so popular, it’s inspired similar commodified experiences at Fontana hot springs and the (not-so-) Secret Lagoon. – Photo and text by The Washington Post