How to NOT be a bad tourist in Iceland… or anywhere else

How to NOT be a bad tourist in Iceland… or anywhere else

The Ugly Americans… and Italians… and Chinese…

Recently, I had the immense privilege of spending a week in Iceland. It was an amazing adventure, and I am so glad I went. There are probably very few places on earth as beautiful and geologically diverse as Iceland.

Unfortunately, because Iceland has so much to offer, it has been overrun with tourists in recent years. Not just in the summer months, when the island is lush and green and blissfully mosquito free, but even in the winter months. The nation has a population of just over 332,000, but has an influx of around 2 million tourists each year.

Now, while anyone can see that tourism will bring a great amount of money into the local economy, it also brings its share of troubles. Here’s my simple guide on how to not be a bad tourist in Iceland, or any other place you travel.

1. How to not be a bad tourist in Iceland: Stay on the designated walkways.

As I mentioned above, a large part of Iceland is beautifully lush and green in the spring and summer months. This is due in large part to the leafy Icelandic moss that grows here. Icelandic moss is incredibly fragile and, once damaged, does not grow back easily or quickly.

Justin Bieber caused an uproar when he filmed the video for “I’ll Show You” in Iceland because (a) he rolled all over the moss and went for a swim in the glacier lagoon, and (b) he shared those images via his social media accounts. Over 70 million Bieber followers are now under the impression that it is perfectly acceptable to do those things.

It is not.

Still worse is the tale of the campers who ripped up large patches of the moss in Thingvellir National Park to insulate their tents. In the words of the Gateway to Iceland web site, the land now has “many open scars.”

Most of the sites we visited have short rope barriers and a sign with a pair of shoes and the red circle/slash symbol of “don’t do this.” Yet at every single place, we consistently saw people stepping over the barrier and walking past the sign. And I don’t mean one or two. I mean 12-15 at any given moment.

how to not be a bad tourist in iceland

Not only was their behavior disrespectful to the host country who asked for visitors to not do that, it was disrespectful to the other visitors, who wanted to take a picture of the beautiful setting without having to crop or photoshop the rude tourists out of their photos.

I was particularly frustrated and shocked by the behavior of this group of tourists. They had the nerve to set up folding chairs in front of the waterfall!

how to not be a bad tourist in iceland

Others spent about ten minutes taking photos of each other throwing a frisbee around and taking pictures with the waterfall as a backdrop. I have no idea what the logic was behind that. The irony is that the tourists who disobeyed the rules in order to get 6-10 feet closer could have gotten just as good a selfie from behind the rope barrier.

2. How to not be a bad tourist in Iceland: Keep your drones in the car.

Most of the natural beauty sites and national parks in Iceland have signs clearly prohibiting the use of drones. But naturally, that didn’t stop anyone from disregarding those signs. So while we were out enjoying the beautiful snowy landscapes and cascading waterfalls, we had to listen to the high pitched wheeeeeeee of a drone flying overhead. It sounded like giant mutant mosquitos were coming after us. Very annoying, very distracting. Especially at a place like Namafjall Fumaroles and Mud Pots, where the scenery can best be appreciated not just by looking, but also listening:


3. How to not be a bad tourist in Iceland: Be safe.

If you don’t value your own life, at least consider the trauma and expense your plunging to your death would cause. There are very real dangers in Iceland. There are cliffs that drop off into frigid water or rocky outcrops. And then there’s the scary phenomenon known as a “sneaker wave.”

The sneaker wave is a mutation in the crashing surf that causes a wave to literally sneak up on you. You could potentially be in danger even if you’re just standing on the beach.  These waves have pulled unsuspecting tourists out to sea, where they drown. Signs all over the beach tell visitors to never turn their backs to the water.

Another astounding moment from our trip was when I spotted this tourist walking in the Kerid crater.

how to NOT be a bad tourist in iceland

In short, respect the nature in Iceland or it will knock the crap out of you. It might even kill you. No selfie is worth your life.

how to not be a bad tourist in iceland

How to not be a bad tourist in Iceland: The Bottom Line

Basically, it all boils down to (a) following the rules and (b) being respectful – of the host country and your fellow travelers. Please think before you act when you’re traveling.

how to not be a bad tourist in Iceland
Follow these three simple rules to stay in the good graces of the people who live and work in your travel destination.

11 Replies to “How to NOT be a bad tourist in Iceland… or anywhere else”

  1. This is really shocking. It’s so sad that you have tales of this bad behaviour, and also photos to show just how ridiculous people can be!! I went to Iceland last year (in winter) but I didn’t see any of this kind of madness. I am truly glad I missed it!

    I would add one extra thing (along with the don’t walk off the official paths) – Don’t drop litter. People that drop litter in beautiful landscapes (or even less beautiful landscapes!) anywhere in the world are the worst! They deserve to be kicked in the shins with pointy shoes.

  2. I agree, thousands of footprints will ruin Iceland’s natural beauty! If people can’t abide by the rules, iceland’s Government will have to start putting up extra barriers and security and probably start charging to visit these natural attractions to pay the extra staff. I actually saw an Italian man go out to the edge of a cliff in the Kirkjubaejarklaustur canyons (another place Justin Bieber went off the trail) and almost fell to the bottom of the canyon when a big gust of wind came by. It knocked his water bottle out of his hand and he wobbled. All for the selfie. That would definitely put a damper on people visiting these incredible canyons!

  3. Great guide! People do stupid stuff. When I was in Iceland they had to warn us when visiting the fissures and the sort to stay on the path because certain people would wander off.. step onto soft area and then burn their skin off in the boiling water.. safety first people, not abusing nature for photos!

  4. Wow! I can’t believe people are so disrespectful. That’s just wrong. They have rules for a reason. Thanks for this type of article on “what not to do” in a place.

  5. These are great tips – though it’s sad that people have to be reminded to be good stewards of nature. Iceland is such an incredible place to visit – thanks for sharing!

  6. I just don’t understand people who don’t follow the rules 🙁 They are there for a reason, but I guess it’s difficult to keep people in check with just signs. Great post to keep people aware of rules!

  7. It never ceases to amaze me how ignorant some tourists can be, if there’s a sign saying ‘do not enter’ its usually there for your own safety or to protect the natural wonder. It’s sad to think what could happen to Iceland if this behaviour continues.

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