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:
The fires blazing in Brazil are part of a larger deforestation crisis, accelerated by President Jair Bolsonaro.
The Amazon is burning. There have been more than 74,000 fires across Brazil this year, and nearly 40,000 fires across the Amazon, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. That’s the fastest rate of burning since record-keeping began, in 2013. Toxic smoke from the fires is so intense that darkness now falls hours before the sun sets in São Paulo, Brazil’s financial capital and the largest city in the Western Hemisphere.
The fires have captured the planet’s attention as little else does. The Amazon is the world’s largest and most diverse tract of rainforest, with millions of species and billions of trees. It stores vast amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide and produces 6 percent of the planet’s oxygen.
Meritocracy prizes achievement above all else, making everyone—even the rich—miserable. Maybe there’s a way out.
In the summer of 1987, I graduated from a public high school in Austin, Texas, and headed northeast to attend Yale. I then spent nearly 15 years studying at various universities—the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford, Harvard, and finally Yale Law School—picking up a string of degrees along the way. Today, I teach at Yale Law, where my students unnervingly resemble my younger self: They are, overwhelmingly, products of professional parents and high-class universities. I pass on to them the advantages that my own teachers bestowed on me. They, and I, owe our prosperity and our caste to meritocracy.
Two decades ago, when I started writing about economic inequality, meritocracy seemed more likely a cure than a cause. Meritocracy’s early advocates championed social mobility. In the 1960s, for instance, Yale President Kingman Brewster brought meritocratic admissions to the university with the express aim of breaking a hereditary elite. Alumni had long believed that their sons had a birthright to follow them to Yale; now prospective students would gain admission based on achievement rather than breeding. Meritocracy—for a time—replaced complacent insiders with talented and hardworking outsiders.
One person shouldn’t have the power to set policies that doom the rest of humanity’s shot at mitigating rising temperatures.
When Jair Bolosonaro won Brazil’s presidential election last year, having run on a platform of deforestation, David Wallace-Wells asked, “How much damage can one person do to the planet?” Bolsonaro didn’t pour lighter fluid to ignite the flames now ravishing the Amazon, but with his policies and rhetoric, he might as well have. The destruction he inspired—and allowed to rage with his days of stubborn unwillingness to douse the flames—has placed the planet at a hinge moment in its ecological history. Unfortunately, the planet doesn’t have a clue about how it should respond.
In part, the problem is that so much of the world is now governed by leaders who share Bolsonaro’s sensibility. Even before Bolsonaro presided over the incineration of the world’s storehouse of oxygen, he led a dubious regime. His path to power began with the corrupt impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, followed by the arrest of his higher-polling electoral rival.
He understands men in America better than most people do. The rest of the country should start paying attention.
Every morning of my Joe Rogan experience began the same way Joe Rogan begins his: with the mushroom coffee.
It’s a pour-and-stir powder made from lion’s mane and chaga—“two rock-star mushrooms,” according to Joe—and it’s made by a company called Four Sigmatic, a regular advertiser on Joe Rogan’s wildly popular podcast. As a coffee lover, the mere existence of mushroom coffee offends me. (“I’ll have your most delicious thing, made from your least delicious things, please,” a friend said, scornfully.) But it tastes fine, and even better after another cup of actual coffee.
Next, I took several vitamin supplements from a company called Onnit, whose core philosophy is “total human optimization” and whose website sells all kinds of wicked-cool fitness gear—a Darth Vader kettlebell ($199.95); a 50-foot roll of two-and-a-half-inch-thick battle rope ($249.95); a 25-pound quad mace ($147.95), which according to one fitness-equipment site is a weapon dating back to 11th-century Persia. I stuck to the health products, though, because you know how it goes—you buy one quad mace and soon your apartment is filled with them. I stirred a packet of Onnit Gut Health powder into my mushroom coffee, then downed an enormous pair of Alpha Brain pills, filled with nootropics to help with “memory and focus.”
Police in Oregon manipulated a photo to make a suspect look more like the perpetrator.
Last week, The Oregonian newspaper exposed what ought to be a headline-grabbing scandal in the course of reporting on an otherwise obscure criminal trial.
The dicey behavior began when Portland cops investigating a series of bank robberies felt they knew the perpetrator’s identity: Tyrone Lamont Allen, a 50-year-old whose face is covered by several prominent tattoos.
But there was a problem. None of the bank tellers had noted seeing any face tattoos on the robber. And no tattoos were visible in recovered surveillance footage.
Rather than looking for other suspects, or even proceeding with a photo lineup knowing that the tellers were unlikely to positively identify Allen, the police officers turned to a piece of software to solve their problem.
Many gay preteens know early on that they are somehow different, but lack the parental and social support that heterosexuals take for granted.
The 12-year-old drag star Desmond Napoles is one of a growing number of kids who have embraced an LGBTQ identity at an early age. He has already come out as gay. Recent postings on his Instagram feed, which has 181,000 followers, feature him posing in a purple wig with red lips pursed, or in a rainbow dress at Brooklyn Pride. He recently appeared in an ad for Converse’s 2019 Pride collection. “He is spreading the message that it is okay for kids to drag,” his mother, Wendy Napoles, told Gay Star News. And to “explore their identity and express themselves, without shame, without hiding.”
Her son may be precocious, but most queer kids remember feeling different very early in their lives. The clichés of this childhood contrariety are well known: Gay boys, sometimes adopting an effeminate gait and an ironic manner, shy away from raucous play with their gender peers; lesbian girls, throwing on baggy clothes and hard hats, are ever ready for a physical fray. These are stereotypes, but queer kids often tip their hand. Years later, a family photo surfaces—of a boy holding a doll, say, as his brothers roughhouse nearby—that, in retrospect, makes the story seem obvious. These unwittingly campy childhood photos also communicate a reality generally overlooked in society: Budding queer identities have nonsexual elements that often form long before puberty, signaling what lies ahead.
Outnumbered by drunk and disorderly visitors, the Netherlands fights back.
The Dutch have suffered some brutal occupations, from the Roman empire and Viking raids to Spanish and Nazi rule. But now they face an even larger army of invaders: tourists.
In the era of cheap flights and Airbnb, their numbers are staggering. Some 19 million tourists visited the Netherlands last year, more people than live there. For a country half the size of South Carolina, with one of the world’s highest population densities, that’s a lot. And according to the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions, the number of annual visitors is projected to increase by 50 percent over the next decade, to 29 million. Urban planners and city officials have a word for what the Netherlands and quite a few other European countries are experiencing: overtourism. With such an influx of humanity comes a decline in quality of life. Residents’ complaints range from inconvenience (crowds spilling from sidewalks to streets) to vandalism to alcohol-induced defilement (vomiting in flower boxes, urinating in mailboxes).
A tale of missing money, heated lunchroom arguments, and flaxseed pizza crusts
Late on a fall afternoon, a skeleton crew staffed the cafeteria at New Canaan High School, in Connecticut. Custodial workers cleaned up the day’s remains while one of the cooks prepped for the evening’s athletic banquet.
A woman entered quietly through the back door, the one designated for deliveries and employees. She wore a jacket over a loose gown. She clutched something to her chest that appeared to be a bag connected to an IV.
“What are you doing here?” one of the workers asked.
The woman said nothing. She shuffled to her small office. The door clicked shut. The workers exchanged looks.
Through the 2016 campaign, I posted a series called “Trump Time Capsule” in this space. The idea was to record, in real time, what was known about Donald Trump’s fitness for office—and to do so not when people were looking back on our era but while the Republican Party was deciding whether to line up behind him and voters were preparing to make their choice.
The series reached 152 installments by election day. I argued that even then there was no doubt of Trump’s mental, emotional, civic, and ethical unfitness for national leadership. If you’re hazy on the details, the series is (once again) here.
That background has equipped me to view Trump’s performance in office as consistently shocking but rarely surprising. He lied on the campaign trail, and he lies in office. He insulted women, minorities, “the other” as a candidate, and he does it as a president. He led “lock her up!” cheers at the Republican National Convention and he smiles at “send them back!” cheers now. He did not know how the “nuclear triad” worked then, and he does not know how tariffs work now. He flared at perceived personal slights when they came from Senator John McCain, and he does so when they come from the Prime Minister of Denmark. He is who he was.
They are endangering both American citizens and American ideals at large.
I haven’t seen Justice Hans Linde in more than a decade, but I thought of him last Saturday, when I found myself locked in a science museum with frightened parents and children while neofascist thugs marched by. Hans was a child in Weimar Germany; I suspect he would have known how I was feeling.
The museum was the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, in Portland. The occasion was a rally organized by the Proud Boys, an all-male group that exalts “Western values” and promotes Islamophobia. Other affiliated groups joined in—a loose conglomeration of racists, chauvinists, and just plain thugs. Some of them were connected to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago, at which a right-wing marcher drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a woman named Heather Heyer. The Proud Boys aren’t from Portland, but they have selected the Rose City as the site for their rallies, threats, and clashes with local “antifa,” or antifascist activists. The rally Saturday was nominally to demand that Portland suppress the antifa groups so that the Proud Boys can march unopposed whenever they choose.