1,767,726 people have visited Iceland through Keflavik Airport in 2016. These statistics from the Icelandic Tourism Board (Ferðamálastofa) confirm that there has been an exponential growth in tourism to the country. Six years ago, when this latest growth really started after the infamous Eyjafjallajökull eruption. It looks as if this incident triggered a new wave of tourism, Inspired by Eruptions?, further fueled by new flights not only from established European mostly low cost carriers but also from the new Icelandic carrier Wow air founded in 2011. Globally successful movies and TV series further helped putting Iceland on the map of the global tourism industry.
There has been slow but steady growth in tourism figures to Iceland especially since the 1990s, when at the end of the decade the number of tourists exceeded the number of people living in Iceland for the first time. In 2016, 332,529 people were resident in the country (opposed to the almost 1.8 million visitors). These recent double-digit growth rates in tourism are unprecedented. While there have been phases with high growth rates in the past (as shown in the chart above), these came from a much smaller base (such as the 38.4% growth in 1955, when 9474 people visited Iceland). This raises considerable questions about the sustainability of such growth rates, and the question how much visitors the country is prepared to handle, even if this helped the economy to grow again after the financial crisis hit the country’s banks in 2009.
In terms of the global tourism market, the visitor statistics show that Iceland benefits considerably from its geographic location between Europe and North America. The country partly become a stopover destination, especially for people visiting from the USA and Canada which are among the largest groups of visitors. Further cheap flights especially from the United Kingdom from where Iceland is a comparably short flight away add to the main countries of origin, as do the close links to the Nordic countries that Iceland is closely connected to (not least culturally and economically). The following cartogram shows the top 17 countries of origin of people who visited Iceland in 2016 (16.2% of visitors came from outside these countries which in the map is equally distributed over the rest of the world shown in light grey):
But the trends also show a diversification of where people are visiting from. China and India, despite their relatively more remoter location from Iceland, are showing growing numbers. In December 2016, visitors from China were the third largest group of visitors (after the UK and the USA).
Seasonal change is another factor in contributing to these growth figures: In 2016 more people visited Iceland in each of the winter months than people came at the height of the season only ten years before. And at the height of the summer season (July and August) there were now more people visiting than in the whole of the year 15 years ago. The following chart shows how these numbers have increased month-by-month over the past ten years:
Lastly, seasonal change also has an underlying spatial pattern. As mentioned above, Chinese visitors were proportionally higher towards the end of the year (coming third), while it overall was the six-largest nation by origin of visitors. Highest numbers of visitors throughout the year in 2016 came from the USA (23.5%), the UK (17.9%) and Germany (7.5%), while in November and December the UK even took the top spot. The following cartogram animation shows the seasonal variation of where visitors come from (again, highlighting the top 17 countries versus the rest of the world). The map is also changing its overall size depending on the overall number of visitors in each month, with is also shown in the bottom left corner of the map:
With 2017 having been declared the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development by the United Nations, and in the light of the statistics shown above, Iceland’s policy makers needs to find new answers to where its tourism sector should be heading to and how the country can be defined as a tourist destination that maintains a sustainable basis for its society and environment.