What happens when Iceland, an island nation with 330,000 residents, starts welcoming 1.2 million tourists a year? Feargus O’Sullivan, of our sister site CityLab, explains:
This is raw-boned, hardscrabble country, both thinly populated and thinly served by public amenities. That’s much of its attraction, of course—the idea of having ancient lava fields, raging waterfalls, and mossy ravines more or less to yourself.
You’re far less likely to be alone nowadays, though, and many of the easier-to-access areas are groaning under the pressure of not being as unfrequented as they once were. Land at some beautiful spots is being trampled by too many feet, while basic facilities such as parking and toilets are limited. This has led to unfortunate incidents that include desperate tourists turning the graves of Iceland’s greatest poets into an impromptu bathroom. Less gross but also less forgivable are tourists who drive off-road, damaging fragile landscapes and thus partly ruining the wildernesses that they have traveled so far to witness.
An Atlantic reader feels the irony:
When I first went to Iceland in the ‘60s it was not unusual to find attractions like Gullfoss to be virtually free of visitors. In contrast, on my most recent visit, lines of people shuffled past key spots with just enough time to get their selfie. Now I am sorry that I kept telling everyone just how great Iceland is.
William Edward Mead, writing about Iceland’s literary culture, was shocked at the barrenness of the landscape, finding it distinctly “unfavorable … to literary fertility” and other scholarly pursuits. “The country is little better than a desert,” he wrote. “People with so little to make life attractive might be pardoned if they were to sink into a stolid indifference to everything but the struggle to keep alive.” Yet the beauty of such harsh, isolated country is also evident in his description:
The only inhabitable portion is a narrow strip of pasture land extending like a green girdle round the coast and up the deep, narrow fiords. The interior of the country is a howling waste of sand and ice, traversed by darting glacier rivers, and utterly incapable of supporting more than a few scattered inhabitants. […]
The farmhouse where I spent more than a fortnight [is] distant a day’s ride on horseback from Reykjavik. Behind the house rises a naked, precipitous ridge of basalt, a quarter of a mile high, sweeping in a magnificent unbroken curve from the bold headland that juts into the sea to the upper waters of the Laxá. Before the house stretches the long, narrow fiord, swarming with sea-birds that circle endlessly about the double cascade foaming down from the river into the sea.
It’s a place that takes its romance from its solitude—and Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden, who visited Iceland in 1936, captured that lonely beauty in his poem “Journey to Iceland.” Iceland, to Auden, with its “sterile immature mountains” and “abnormal day,” is a place for travelers who want to reject the world—a kind of alternate reality, whose purity rubs off on people.
For Europe is absent: this is an island and therefore
Unreal. And the steadfast affections of its dead may be bought
By those whose dreams accuse them of being
Spitefully alive, and the pale
From too much passion of kissing feel pure in its deserts.
Auden later revised that stanza to read “this is an island and therefore / A refuge”—a small change, but a telling one. After all the only truly solitary journeys are imaginary ones; the mind is the most isolated country of all; and the best place to get away from people, tourists or otherwise, may be the refuge of your own thoughts. As Auden closed his poem:
Again the writer
Runs howling to his art.
You can read the full text of “Journey to Iceland” (or listen to Auden reading it) here, and you can see some of its sights for yourself:
A reader, Dave, responds to Rosa’s note with some fond reflections on Iceland:
It is hard to capture just how big and beautiful it all is. We hiked, drove, and mountain biked (with an emphasis on mountains), around Iceland. We saw fields of basalt with sharp-edged mountain ridges that seemed to be made of a single solid rock, covered in moss. We saw tens of thousands of acres with a single tiny road in, one out, and no other sign of humanity: no telephone poles, lines, pavement, agriculture, litter. We came upon waterfalls that would be the wonder of any Colorado resort town but are unnamed, flowing over unnamed ridges into unnamed basins.
Coincidentally one of my friends is currently in Iceland and just posted several photos and videos of waterfalls, including this one:
Then there is the water. It is a force of nature, wonder, energy, and culture in Iceland. It rains, then pours down into rivers, makes up the glaciers, and is heated by ingenious people, then piped by above ground aqueducts into the towns, where it heats lovely, neat homes. And it heats public pools that make your college gym look like a swamp puddle. These heated pools and saunas were worth the trip entirely.
And the water tastes like water; in many places you can drink it from the basin of that waterfall. When we came home, our filtered water tasted of metal and chemicals.
Then there are the miscellaneous: A jewel of a city, Reykjavik, where you can eat fish, horse, shark, and whale. Or have great Pakistani, decent Ramen, and awesome bread, and go to bars, nightclubs, coffee shops, stores of all kids. It’s the smallest biggest city outside Reno, full of Brits, French, Germans, Japanese, and Americans. And the natives: fun and lighthearted, but intellectually curious and fearless. Seemingly they are all industrious, beautiful, individualist and possessing what I'd call an American spirit.
For these and other reasons, if you ever get the chance to go: go.
Another reader who went is Rebecca Zicarelli, and her dispatch and photos will make you want to follow in her wake:
We just got back from Iceland. It’s a beautiful place.
Iceland is the newest landscape; it’s where the North American and Eurasian continental plates recycle back to the raw stuff at the heart of our planet. It’s also the oldest modern culture (if the rule of law is your metric of modernity), based on an agreement in the year 930 that just happened to be signed where the walls of this continental-plate collision rear out of the ground.
This photo is in Þingvellir, a national park where that government of rule-of-law was formed, looking down through the wall of the North-Atlantic plate the to the crack between continents and the plain where modern culture was born:
It’s a landscape of rocks thinly covered by moss, lichen, and small shrubs and trees. Besides the lifting of continental plates into mountains, the dominate feature is the seabed floor and volcanic rock eroding back into the ocean. The delicate landscape won’t survive too many footsteps.
Antiquities won’t survive, either. At dinner one night, a man who makes his living as an Iceland-adventure guide entertained his clients at the next table, and he spoke of this and the Icelandic distaste of saying, “No, don’t do this.” It’s a national ethic of being good stewards of the land, and one I loved. It was certainly lacking in the sign pollution that litters our national treasures proclaiming drug-free zones and don’t litter and don’t park and no dogs allowed and gun-free zone and on and on …
Laugarvatnshellar, a protected cave dug into the sand-stone/basalt layers in the south, is on the road between Þingvellir and Laugarvaten, and a likely stop on a Golden Circle tour. While Laugarvatnshellar was mostly used as a shelter for sheep and their shepherd (the cave has two rooms), families have made it a home as recently as the 1940s. Being here unsettles the soul; it’s easy to imagine being here alone through the dark winter or isolated here in the brief summer. There appear to be centuries of carvings inside the cave, and the urge to leave your mark on the wall is powerful.
But tourists aren’t such good house guests; they don’t have the Icelandic stewardship ethic, and easily give in to temptation to leave a mark. The tender moss is often trampled. At Laugarvatnshellar, centuries of carved runes and the slow-growing lichen that covers the walls are being scrapped off and replace with English-alphabet letters, cute hearts, and smiley faces:
There’s also a wool shortage now, created by the high demands of knitting tourism. I admit to participating; I was drawn there because of the wool industry, and I brought back a suitcase full of wool.
Keldur, the Viking heart of Iceland that lies in the plain south of Mt. Hekla, the volcano that shut European airports down in 2010, you’ll find the oldest buildings. Equally obvious, if you stop at the forest nursery before Keldur, is the massive effort to repopulate the landscape with trees and and hold back the eroding basalt with stone walls, you can read the fascinating story here; a Google Books chapter called “Tackling the Ubiquitous Wind.”
There are still lambs here, jumping over the stone walls used to hold back the desert of eroding sandstone and crumbling basalt. But the wind and the water are winning, and I question how Iceland can hold both her plants and the weight of our footsteps without instilling a better sense stewardship her visitors.
My last image is a new lamb, just a few days old, and its mother in front of one of the newer buildings in ancient Keldur—the church (part of that 930 agreement made Iceland a Christian nation, and the churches of each village are supported by the government).
Rebecca has more photos on her Tumblr. If you have your own anecdote from Iceland to share, please let us know (especially if you have a good photo from an airplane). Update from another reader, Matt, with fond memories of proposing marriage in that magical land:
I don’t have any pictures to share, as my (now) wife and I were in Iceland in September of 2000 before the advent of digital photography. She is involved in genetics and was in Reykjavik for work, where I met her for a few days.
I was immediately struck by the drastic changes in landscape in Iceland. You land at Keflavik, in the middle of a wasteland of volcanic rock, and a golf course is the only oasis of green you’ll see between the airport and Reykjavik. But when you arrive in Reykjavik you get the quintessentially neat, multi-colored homes of Iceland. Travel just a bit further to the east and you’re treated to the greenest pastoral hills and valleys you can imagine, many with sheep and Icelandic ponies scampering over them to add to the Shire-esque feel.
Our first full day together we went to the Blue Lagoon, where I proposed and she accepted. Our second day we hiked up the Reykjadalur trail north of Hveragerdi, where we passed bubbling pools of gray mud along a steaming river. At the northern end we heard the sound of a freight train passing, only to finally round a bend and see that it was a column of steam issuing from the side of hill.
Seriously, it’s like wandering from one dreamscape to the next, all shepherded by the nicest, handsomest people on the planet.
We’ve spent some time in this space praising Iceland and its precious natural wonders. But it isn’t all fun and Northern lights up there: A reader named Ellen Girardeau Kempler sends over a hilarious satirical essay she wrote poking fun at the country’s tourism boom. Kempler spent some time in Iceland for a writer’s retreat, prompting her to provide “my reaction to the relentless marketing machine behind the branding of Iceland as a tourist destination.”
Author’s Disclaimer: Brand Iceland is a tame and tourist-friendly destination created purely for marketing purposes. Any resemblance to the actual country of Iceland—home to a UNESCO City of Literature; a parliamentary system over 1,000 years old; a written history (as told in the Icelandic sagas) marked by battles with the elements and each other; and some of the planet’s wildest and most dangerous landscapes (including scalding geysers, pools and rivers; deadly rip currents; active volcanoes; yawning crevasses; unstable glaciers; moving tectonic plates; sheer, windswept cliffs; slippery mountain trails; volatile weather; and violent waterfalls)—is purely coincidental.
The advertising onslaught begins as soon as you board an Icelandair jet and plug your own headset into the entertainment console (conveniently available for purchase, in case you forgot). Before every movie, television show or musical selection begins, you’ll learn about souvenirs and tours you MUST buy. To promote the airline’s winning strategy of letting visitors stay in Iceland for up to seven days on their way to other destinations, you’ll be asked to follow them and tag your photos #MyStopover for a chance to be featured in the in-flight magazine.
Landing at Keflavik, you’ll spot familiar faces staring seductively from walls and shop windows, like the breathless, pale siren who whispers in the video ads, “Gee-SSSyr” (geysir—both the Icelandic word for geyser and the name of a clothing company). You’ll see highly enhanced, billboard-sized images of the moss-covered lava fields, blue-white glaciers, steaming geysers and soaking pools, rainbow-draped waterfalls, black sand beaches, bird-inhabited cliffs, glistening ice lagoons, shaggy horses, comical puffins, turf-covered houses, elfin-sized doors, shimmering Auroras and glowing (but never threatening) volcanoes you probably already recognize from such movies and television shows as Game of Thrones, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and many more.
Welcome to Brand Iceland, the destination marketing invention that powered a sparsely populated, mostly rural, rocky, windswept, northerly and geologically unstable island out of a paralyzing 2008 economic crisis. With a total population about the size of Cincinnati, Ohio, occupying an area about the size of the state of Kentucky, the island should have room for a high-powered tourist economy.
According to an April 2016 Businesswire report, tourism in Iceland has increased steadily over the last six years, and rose by 30 percent, to almost 1.3-million visitors, in 2015 alone. Visitation is projected to reach 1.7-million, or five times its resident population, in 2016. Tourism now nets more revenue for Iceland than fishing, its leading industry since Viking settlement over 1,000 years ago.
At about $1,000 Icelandic krona to every $8 U.S. dollars, bills add up fast. It’s not unusual to spend $50 for two beers and an appetizer during half-off happy hour pricing. In Brand Iceland’s capital city, my husband almost dropped his phone calculating the cost of a down jacket (cunningly crafted in the flattering, ultra-thin Icelandic style). It was $325.
If you opt to visit the tourist-mobbed Blue Lagoon resort, you’ll wait in line to pay about $40 for the standard, towel-free package, then receive an electronic wristband that opens and closes your locker and keeps track of extra-expensive charges throughout your visit (drinks, smoothies, food, massages). Even the wild, unpopulated and remote southern tip of the country is filled with shops hawking sweaters in traditional patterns, artfully loomed blankets, stylish bohemian knitwear and cosmetics made by a spa with a mysterious blend identified only as “Icelandic herbs.”
Over our ten-day stay for the Iceland Writer’s Retreat, we debated about what to bring back for dog sitters and family. We finally settled on bags and bars of licorice and chocolate, local porter (only available in six-packs), Brenivin (cumin-flavored Aquavit), a Viking-themed stainless steel cake cutter (made in China), lava earrings and photo books.
As we waited for our plane home, a young woman stood snapping price tags in the duty-free. “Now my sister will understand why I didn’t buy her anything,” she said. “She might even be proud of me for resisting.”
In case you don’t give in to touristic temptation as you tour the “Land of Fire and Ice,” most of the wildly expensive items you’ve seen along the way can be purchased online and delivered to your seat during your flight home. As is routine in this almost cashless society, an Icelandair flight attendant/salesperson will happily charge them to your credit card, along with the meal you are obliged to purchase en route. You won’t even think about the price for three weeks, until your shock-of-a-bill arrives.
When I spent two nights in Iceland last year on a unplanned layover, I could not believe the prices. Because it was such a short visit, I’d failed to do much research ahead of time, instead letting the exchange rate catch me off guard. At one point, I grabbed a bite at what seemed to be a middle-of-the-road restaurant in downtown Reykjavik, only to later find out the lunch entrée cost twice as much as I anticipated—$35. Ouch.
I’m glad I got the brief chance to see Iceland, despite the high prices. The country’s scenery is every bit as alien and incredible as the hype makes it out to be. Just beware, young travelers. I quickly filed Iceland on my list of “places to visit again when I am older and have more discretionary income.”
Have a similar experience? Say hello. This reader did: “Apparently you can take Iceland Air to London with a 48 hour Icelandic pass, enough time to see some cool stuff and drink moss schnapps.” Here’s something cool he did, hopefully not with moss schnapps:
One of the planet’s most dramatic extinctions was caused in part by ocean acidification, which has become a problem in our own era.
The worst day in the history of life on Earth, so far, happened almost exactly 66 million years ago, when an asteroid roughly the size of Manhattan slammed into the Yucatán Peninsula.
You may know the story. The asteroid—which arrived, probably, in June or July—immediately drilled a 20-mile hole into the planet’s surface, vaporizing bedrock and spewing it halfway to the moon. The planet shuddered with magnitude-12 earthquakes, loosing tsunamis across the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the ejected debris condensed in orbit and plunged back to Earth as searing spheres of molten glass, which torched the land and turned forests into firestorms. Other debris remained high in space, where it blocked the sun’s rays and began to chill the surface of the planet.
He once consoled a shaken nation. Now he’s screaming about conspiracies on cable news.
On September 22, 2001, 11 days after the worst terrorist attack on American soil, then–New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani looked squarely into the Saturday Night Live camera and told a shaken nation, “We will not let our decisions be made out of fear.” Flanked by a somber phalanx of uniformed police officers and firefighters, Giuliani offered stirring and patriotic words: “We choose to live our lives in freedom.”
Paul Simon performed a searing rendition of “The Boxer,” his folkie ode to a battered fighter’s gritty resilience. It was a total tonal shift for television’s longest-running comedy show, in line with the total tonal shift taking place across the country at the time. And then, Lorne Michaels, SNL’s creator and showrunner, appeared and asked Giuliani a sober question: “Can we be funny?” With a Borscht Belt comic’s perfect deadpan timing, “America’s Mayor” replied, “Why start now?”—and in one small, quiet, moving way, life reverted to normal.
Financial confessionals reveal that income inequality and geographic inequality have normalized absurd spending patterns.
The hypothetical couple were making $350,000 a year and just getting by, their income “barely” qualifying them as middle-class. Their budget, posted in September, showed how they “survived” in a city like San Francisco, spending more than $50,000 a year on child care and preschool, nearly $50,000 a year on their mortgage, and hefty amounts on vacations, entertainment, and a weekly date night—even as they saved for retirement and college in tax-advantaged accounts.
The internet, being the internet, responded with some combination of howling, baying, pitchfork-jostling, and scoffing. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York quipped that the thing the family was struggling with was math. Gabriel Zucman, a leading scholar of wealth and inequality, described the budget as laughable, while noting that it showed how much money consumption taxes could raise.
A battle over local control in a city that was the face of integration shows the extent of the new segregation problem in the U.S.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—When Diane Zook, the chair of Arkansas’ State Board of Education, banged her gavel to bring the afternoon meeting into order on October 10, every seat in the cramped boardroom was filled. Nearly every inch of paint on the wall had been covered by a body before the fire marshal, concerned about capacity, ushered those standing out of the room. The crowd spilled into the overflow areas in a wave. Sixty-two years after the world watched Little Rock struggle to desegregate its schools, history seemed to be repeating itself.
Nearly five years ago, in January 2015, the state of Arkansas assumed control of Little Rock’s public schools. At the time, six of the schools in the district had “chronically underperformed” on state exams regularly for several years; 22 superintendents had passed through the district in 32 years, creating a sense of instability. The state gives a letter-grade assessment to every public school, which is based on a combination of state-exam results and other metrics, such as graduation rates. Because of that instability, and the handful of ‘F’-rated schools, the state believed the best way to steady the district was to take it over.
Untitled Goose Game is fun. The problem is, all games are also work.
Like games, geese are notoriously annoying. They’re brusque, clumsy, and territorial. If you are a person and one appears on your country estate, the advice recommends avoiding engagement and then standing your ground if it charges. Show the goose who’s boss. A recent, hugely popular video game, Untitled Goose Game, stages this conflict. For some reason, it turns out to be familiar to everyone, even city slickers who have never seen a goose in person.
It’s fun! Being a goose for a while is diverting and surprising, and embodying one in a simulated, pastoral environment speaks to the flexible power of games as a medium. Games turn the world on its head, allowing you to become all the things you are not: a criminal, in Grand Theft Auto; an explorer of alien worlds, in No Man’s Sky; the universe itself, in Everything. You gain a new perspective, having had the opportunity to be something grander than—or just different from—yourself.
Lawmakers haven’t decided yet whether they should focus solely on Ukraine—or write a broader indictment of the president.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave her blessing to an impeachment inquiry three weeks ago, she also laid down a marker: The investigation wouldn’t center on any of the issues that Democrats have obsessed over for the past three years. Not Russian interference, or emoluments, or security clearances, or family separation. Impeachment would be about Ukraine—and only about Ukraine.
But while that decision helped quell years of frantic debate over whether and why and how Democrats might seek to remove the president, it also foreshadowed the coming battle among House Democrats about what the actual articles of impeachment should look like. Democrats seem to have made strides in their investigation in recent weeks, but they still have this major hurdle to resolve—a hurdle that could have significant implications not just for the success of the inquiry, but for Democrats’ ability to keep control of the House in 2020.
What the Amazon founder and CEO wants for his empire and himself, and what that means for the rest of us.
Where in the pantheon of American commercial titans does Jeffrey Bezos belong? Andrew Carnegie’s hearths forged the steel that became the skeleton of the railroad and the city. John D. Rockefeller refined 90 percent of American oil, which supplied the pre-electric nation with light. Bill Gates created a program that was considered a prerequisite for turning on a computer.
At 55, Bezos has never dominated a major market as thoroughly as any of these forebears, and while he is presently the richest man on the planet, he has less wealth than Gates did at his zenith. Yet Rockefeller largely contented himself with oil wells, pump stations, and railcars; Gates’s fortune depended on an operating system. The scope of the empire the founder and CEO of Amazon has built is wider. Indeed, it is without precedent in the long history of American capitalism.
Trump’s base isn’t going anywhere, but that might not matter to his fate.
On October 13, President Donald Trump’s average approval sat at 42.2 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average.
Then came an astonishing week, even by the standards of the Trump administration. A procession of diplomats trekked to Capitol Hill, where they outlined a consistent tale of an administration hell-bent on conspiracy theories, extracting quid pro quos from the Ukrainian government, all headed by a president insistent on placing his personal lawyer at the heart of foreign policy. Turkey’s government rampaged through Syria, attacking American allies, while U.S. forces frantically retreated and Iran and Russia celebrated. Meanwhile, Turkey’s president laughed at Trump’s threats.
As WeWork crashes and Uber bleeds cash, the consumer-tech gold rush may be coming to an end.
Several weeks ago, I met up with a friend in New York who suggested we grab a bite at a Scottish bar in the West Village. He had booked the table through something called Seated, a restaurant app that pays users who make reservations on the platform. We ordered two cocktails each, along with some food. And in exchange for the hard labor of drinking whiskey, the app awarded us $30 in credits redeemable at a variety of retailers.
I am never offended by freebies. But this arrangement seemed almost obscenely generous. To throw cash at people every time they walk into a restaurant does not sound like a business. It sounds like a plot to lose money as fast as possible—or to provide New Yorkers, who are constantly dining out, with a kind of minimum basic income.
The newly rebellious senator has become an outspoken dissident in Trump’s Republican Party, just in time for the president’s impeachment trial.
Updated on October 20, 2019, at 9:32 p.m. ET
Mitt Romney is leaning forward in his chair, his eyes flashing, his voice sharp.
It’s a strange look for the 72-year-old senator, who typically affects a measured, somber tone when discussing Donald Trump’s various moral deficiencies. But after weeks of escalating combat with the president—over Ukraine, and China, and Syria, and impeachment—the gentleman from Utah suddenly appears ready to unload.
What set him off was my recitation of an argument I’ve heard some Republicans deploy lately to excuse Trump’s behavior. Electing a president, the argument goes, is like hiring a plumber—you don’t care about his character, you just want him to get the job done. Sitting in his Senate office, Romney is indignant. “Are you worried that your plumber overcharges you?” he asks. “Are you worried that the plumber’s going to scream at your kids? Are you worried that the plumber is going to squeal out of your driveway?” I am playing devil’s advocate; he is attempting an exorcism.