Iceland is a magnet for tourists. Its first lady has some advice for them.
By Paige McClanahan
In July 2017, Eliza Reid and her husband celebrated their wedding anniversary with a romantic dinner in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was a summer evening, lots of people were out, and Reid suggested they go for a stroll after their meal. But her husband — Gudni Johannesson, the country’s president — didn’t feel up to facing a crowd asking for selfies.
“I said, ‘I don’t think that’s something you need to worry about,’” Reid remembers. And she was right: “We went out and, of course, no one recognized him — because it was almost all tourists.”
In the two decades since she moved to her adopted country, Reid, a Canadian by birth, has seen Icelandic tourism grow from a trickle of a few hundred thousand visitors to a steady stream of more than 2 million per year before the pandemic. That’s a big deal in a country with a population of just under 388,000.
The boom in tourism — which Reid says has brought opportunities as well as challenges — is a change that she has both witnessed and participated in. In 2016, when her husband was elected president, she was the editor of the in-flight magazine for Icelandair. Three years later, as first lady, she took on a paid position to promote the country’s exports and champion Iceland as a tourist destination. She published a book last year — part travelogue, part memoir, part feminist history of Iceland — and continues to run the writers’ retreat that she founded with a colleague.
I sat down with Reid in the presidential residence, and in our hourlong conversation, she talked about the best way for visitors to meet Icelanders and what she thinks of the term “overtourism.”
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: Tourism has exploded in the 20 years that you’ve been living in Iceland. What has that transformation looked like?
A: Tourism has given us more access to so many things here. You can see it in the number of destinations that I can fly to directly from Iceland, the number of restaurants and cafes in Reykjavik. Stores and other places also have longer opening hours than they used to.
I would also say that the Icelandic population is a traveling population. They have a real curiosity and interest in the outside world, and they are very pleased when the outside world is interested in us. You’ll see that in the statistics about how Icelanders feel toward tourism here, because it has been a huge contributor to our economy and we’re very proud of the country.
Q: You mention in your book, “Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World,” that tourism helped pull Iceland out of the 2008 economic crisis. Can you elaborate?
A: Yes, there was the economic crisis and also the volcanic eruption. There were two things that on the face of it would be seen as very negative but actually helped in some ways. I shouldn’t imply that anyone was happy that we went through the economic crisis. But the upside was that all of a sudden Iceland became more affordable.
And then a few years later, the volcano erupted and they shut down air traffic over Europe, and everyone realized that Iceland was a lot closer than they had thought. It’s not some distant, hard-to-reach island, and yet it somehow seems exotic and interesting. After that, we saw this explosion in tourism.
You know, I started visiting 25 years ago, and in those days I would meet people who would say, “What, do you mean Ireland?” And now everybody says, “Oh, I’m going there,” or “My neighbor’s going,” or “I want to go.” It’s far more in people’s consciousness.
Q: Right after the volcanic eruption in 2010, there was the launch of the “Inspired by Iceland” campaign to promote tourism. I read that over a quarter of the Icelandic adult population participated in that.
A: Well, everybody was supposed to tell all their friends to come to Iceland. I did that for sure, and a lot of other people did, too. There have been some genius campaigns, and a lot of them have important underlying messages about sustainability, like the Icelandic pledge, a commitment to responsible travel that anyone can take online. I think that travelers want to learn about the countries we’re visiting and what we can do to give back, but sometimes we don’t know how to access that information. And the Icelandic pledge is a good way of reminding people to be kind to nature and make sure you have a travel plan in case something happens.
Q: I was struck by one item in the pledge that said, “I will take photos to die for, without dying for them.” I guess people forget themselves sometimes?
A: Here we have hot springs with really hot water; we have active volcanoes; we have sneaker waves on beaches; we have strong winds. We somehow think that we’re invincible when we’re on vacation, but we still have to use our common sense.
Q: You write in your book that one of the best ways for visitors to get to know Icelanders is to hang out in a hot tub at a geothermal pool. Why is that?
A: They say if you want to meet a Brit, go to a pub; if you want to meet a French person, go to a cafe. And definitely here in Iceland, you go to a swimming pool, because that’s where you can meet people — morning, afternoon or evening. And I recommend that visitors try different pools, because they all have their own character and personality and you can meet different types of people. They’re clean and affordable, and it’s something that all the locals do.
Q: In reading your book, I got the sense that the Icelandic community is increasingly diverse, but still very close-knit.
A: On the weekend, I had to buy a bra — which, you know, it’s such a fun experience. I was talking to the woman who worked at the store, and the woman in the changing room next to me says, “I know that voice.” And it was our chief medical officer — like the Anthony Fauci of Iceland. And we were just laughing that only in Iceland do we run into each other in an undergarment store. And then I ran into her again in the grocery store the next day. And you just think: This is a small country.
Q: A few years before the pandemic, Iceland started getting some media attention for “overtourism.” What did you think of that?
A: I think that overtourism is a bit of an unfair terminology. Yes, the number of tourists increased and the percentage increase has been huge, but a lot of that has to do with seasonality. It used to be that everybody came in the summertime because you couldn’t stay anywhere in the countryside in winter. But now two-thirds of the people who visit come outside of the summer months. They’re coming year-round and they’re traveling much more around the country. It’s still easy to come here and not see any other tourists.
In the bigger cities in Europe, you see challenges with accommodation and affordable housing and making larger communities livable for residents. We’ve seen that here, too. But overall I think tourism is a good thing if it’s managed properly, and we have long-term sustainable plans. It’s ultimately bringing money into the economy. That’s why it’s good to have lots of family-owned-and-operated businesses. We need the big conglomerates; they’re paying lots of taxes. But you have to have a mix.