News & Commentary

Tasmania and Iceland have more than shit in common

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Last summer in my native Tasmania, the script changed. The usual news about our basket-case economy and who to blame for it were shunted away by self-congratulatory headlines boasting about our record number of tourists passing through our airports, wineries, festivals and lavender farms. Twenty-two per cent in the last 12 months, according to a report released at the beginning of September. Suddenly, we had planned this all along.
So it has been interesting to find myself in Iceland towards the end of what has been a manic tourist season for another island at an extremity of the Earth. A similar size and population, with an equally memorable but difficult environment, tourism experiences in Iceland can provide some insights for Tasmania about what it might look like if Tourism Tasmania’s targeted 1.5 million visitors to our shores do indeed arrive by the year 2020.
It has been a strange mix of forces that have colluded to bring these distant islands into the tourism limelight. For Iceland, lowered airfares and a devalued currency combined with the free publicity afforded by the 2010 eruption of volcano Eyjafjallajökull and the film adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
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Somehow it brought the country a 2015 summer that ended up so tourist-glutted that it was downright nutty, to the point that respectable newspapers were regularly reporting the inappropriate toileting behaviour of its visitors. In between puffin-watching and whale-eating, everyone from artists to campers seemed to be vandalising Iceland’s unique natural sites, as well as seriously just shitting everywhere, including the gravesites of national heroes.
As the daylight rapidly disappears in the far north, it seems that maybe, just maybe, the hosts are sick of their guests.
But of course, record numbers of tourist make a significant contribution to the economy. And for a small country on the edge of a quivering Europe, who were hit hard by the global financial crisis nearly a decade ago, that’s hard to sneeze at.
And while Tasmania’s tourist growth is not on the same scale yet, 2014-2015 was a noticeably busier summer, and it took a lot of Taswegians by surprise. But the reality is that Tasmania, like Iceland, has an equal need for tourists — and an equal vulnerability towards them.
Huge numbers of tourists can be annoying for locals anywhere, but usually the financial advantages are deemed worth the increased traffic and Germans griping about public transport. But places like Tasmania and Iceland are more delicate than your Barcelona or your Paris. Not only socially, but environmentally, and economically too.
Icelanders may have been caught unawares, hence the numbers of people shitting everywhere: the facilities don’t match the numbers of visitors. Rangers at the overwhelmed Thingvellir National Park are clearly understaffed and overworked.
I am told of a ‘wild west’ scenario where operators go wherever they want in the country, taking whomever they want by whatever mode of transport. Frustration and exhaustion exaggerate the effect for those working in tourism over the summer, but the facts are clear: if this many people – or more- show up in Iceland next summer, then Icelanders will want to be a bit more on top of things. Rein in the operators, herd the masses a little better, and put some more public toilets around.
But as one Reykjavik journalist advises, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Iceland has done that once before recently, in the financial sector, and it ended badly when the banks collapsed. Tasmania also has the habit of becoming a bit of a one-trick pony. The Hydro-Electric Commission and Forestry Tasmania have infamously come to represent the entire state economy at times.
When you see Liberal Premier Will Hodgman doing a photo shoot on the remote South Coast Track in Tassie’s Wilderness World Heritage Area and gushing about the ‘wonderful chance’ the state has to ‘capitalise’ on its beauty in preparation for an increase of operators in these areas — a plan condemned by the UN — you wonder if Tourism Tasmania couldn’t be the next.
Don’t take me for a cynic, though, grumbling about the bloody tourists and how things were better when people only came to our shores in a prison hulk. Tourism has already brought us a lot of good; personally, it’s given me a great job, taking bushwalkers into the mountains for a week of wedge-tailed eagles and pinot noir.
Tasmania is in a good position to make the most of the opportunity afforded us by the ‘MONA effect` and some good press from Lonely Planet. We have exportable products riding the wave of interest all over the world: salmon, whisky, lavender-stuffed teddy bears.
We even have some restrictions in place to preserve our natural environment. It’s just that tourism is fickle; and our place, and our sense of belonging to it, is important. But both can co-exist with a little forethought. It is possible to cultivate a kind of tourism that has respect for environment and heritage and the fact that there are people who live there that have things they need to do.
So, we wait with bated breath to see who shows up this summer. Hopefully they show up and book out our eco-lodges and take our boat tours. Hopefully they fill our bars and shout a local the odd pint. Hopefully they won’t shit anywhere too sensitive.
Importantly, I hope we give the tourists a good time. But let’s do so in such a way that when daylight savings ends, we don’t have to feel like we’ve gotten our island back for the first time in months. Happy with the tourists, the tourism operators, and even Tourism Tasmania.

3 responses to “Tasmania and Iceland have more than shit in common

  1. Well, I’m on my way in mid-November at least… doing the Cradle Mountain track with the Tasmanian Walking Co with the wife and a friend, then a few days in Hobart afterward. Speaking of which… availability of rooms seemed really constrained when we booked so perhaps there will be a tourism boom again this spring/summer.

  2. Unfortunately there are still far too many people in power who think that white-collar money is of less value that blue-collar. They constantly whine about the struggling forestry industry (for example), the most subsidised industry in the state, but begrudge any help towards the service sector, clean industry and the arts.

  3. Thank you for this post and if I may offer my own observations about the links between Tasmania and Iceland. I believe the projections for Iceland are for 5 million tourists in two years time. I’ve just been in Reykjavik, and as I was told by my Icelandic friend, every hole in the ground is a new hotel. It would appear that Iceland is turning into a theme park in order to save a fragile economy while endangering a fragile environment. Furthermore, as a student of Nordic noir in fiction and on screen, also feeding into the tourism mix is the popularity of Icelandic crime fiction and the breakthrough success of Trapped. The Kettering Incident set in Tasmania may also be a factor. Cultural tourism may be as much of an impulse as scenic tourism.

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