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A Break from Overtourism: Domestic Tourists Reclaiming Nature during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Department of Geography and Tourism, Faculty of Life and Environmental Studies, University of Iceland, Dunhagi 7, 107 Reykjavík, Iceland
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Tour. Hosp. 2022, 3(3), 788-802;
Original submission received: 24 June 2022 / Revised: 25 August 2022 / Accepted: 30 August 2022 / Published: 7 September 2022


Natural areas are often of particular importance for residents as venues for recreation and domestic tourism. However, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, overtourism was a major challenge for many nature-based tourism destinations worldwide, and led to a perceived restriction of tourism opportunities for residents. Iceland, one of the countries most associated with the concept of overtourism, witnessed a rapid reduction in international tourist arrivals after the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, domestic tourism was unrestricted and, in fact, actively encouraged. Iceland in the summer of 2020 thus presents an interesting case for studying the experience of domestic tourists at previously overcrowded nature destinations. The study took place in Landmannalaugar, a nature destination known for crowding prior to the pandemic, and is based on 33 semi-structured interviews. Its results reveal that Icelandic residents perceived the break from overtourism as a benefit of the pandemic, and considered it a unique opportunity to reclaim nature destinations from which they had been displaced due to overcrowding by international tourists. Furthermore, they welcomed the chance to engage with fellow domestic tourists. The findings stress the importance of addressing the needs and wants of residents and supporting the development of domestic tourism.

1. Introduction

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, overtourism had become a major challenge for many tourism destinations [1]. In addition to having negative impacts on the physical environment and the quality of experiences for tourists, overtourism is characterised as a form of tourism that reduces the quality of life (QOL) of residents [2,3,4,5]. Among the negative impacts of tourism on the QOL of residents are crowding, increased costs, higher crime rates and conflicts between tourists and residents, also known as adverse “host–guest” relations [6,7]. At the same time, tourism can also have positive impacts on the QOL of residents, for example, in the form of job creation, increased disposable income, and increased services that benefit both tourists and residents [8,9]. The overtourism concept builds upon the assumption that there is a limit to tourism growth at which the negative impacts of tourism begin to outweigh the positive [10,11].
Most studies on overtourism and its impacts on residents have focused on urban and populated areas [5,12,13], but residents can also be impacted by overtourism occurring in natural areas [14,15,16]. Nature sites are often of particular importance for residents, as they provide a venue for recreation and domestic tourism and an escape from their place of residence, thereby contributing to their QOL [17]. Tourism development at nature destinations can enhance domestic tourism, for example, by providing increased infrastructure and accessibility, or by developing tourist attractions that are of interest to international as well as domestic tourists alike [8]. However, once tourism development reaches a state of overtourism, it can result in negative impacts on residents’ opportunities for pursuing domestic tourism and, for instance, lead to the expulsion and displacement of domestic tourists from crowded tourist sites [18,19].
One of the destinations that has often been discussed in the context of overtourism is Iceland [15,16]. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of international visitors to Iceland increased by 18% on average each year. In 2018, Iceland witnessed its highest number of international tourist arrivals so far (2,3 million), with 6.7 tourists for every resident of Iceland [20]. While most overtourism destinations are urban or beach destinations, Iceland’s main attraction is its diverse nature, with more than 90% of tourists stating that experiencing the country’s nature was one of the main reasons for their visit [21]. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, crowding had become problematic at several popular tourist sites, and affected the experience of both international [22,23] as well as domestic tourists [23,24,25].
The COVID-19 pandemic provided a sudden stop to overtourism worldwide as travel restrictions were put in place, causing severe economic repercussions [26]. In Iceland, international travel restrictions were set up and, consequently, international tourist arrivals in 2020 dropped by 75% from the year before, from 2 million in 2019 to less than 500 thousand in 2020 [20]. However, in 2020, there were no restrictions on domestic travel within Iceland. Quite the contrary, the Icelandic government actively encouraged the local population to travel domestically, and ultimately, 86% of the local population stated that they travelled domestically in 2020 [27]. Iceland in the summer of 2020 therefore presents an interesting research case, and provides a rare opportunity to study the experience of domestic tourists at previously overcrowded nature destinations.
This paper presents the findings of a study that took place in a popular tourism destination called Landmannalaugar, where travellers seek unspoilt nature, wilderness, and solitude [28,29]. However, in recent years, visitors in Landmannalaugar were increasingly perceiving the number of tourists as too many, and their satisfaction was decreasing [23,29]. The aim of this study is to investigate the experience of domestic tourists in Landmannalaugar, a destination known for crowding before the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on 33 semi-structured interviews with 51 domestic tourists, the study sheds light on the visitors’ motivations for travelling to the area, and their perception of the number of tourists in the summer of 2020.
While the impacts of tourism on residents have received considerable attention, little focus has been placed on how (over)tourism affects domestic tourism at popular nature destinations. The here-presented study aims to address this gap by analysing domestic tourism in light of the current event of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, the study contributes to the lacking body of literature on the relations between overtourism and domestic tourism at nature destinations, while also contributing to the understanding of how to manage and plan tourism post-pandemic.

2. Background

2.1. The Impacts of Overtourism on Residents at Nature Destinations

Overtourism manifests itself mainly as crowding, which refers to the perception of “restrictive aspects of limited space” [30], and can thus be described as the emotional response to density. As a result of crowding, residents of overtourism destinations may lose their sense of belonging, feel alienated, or become frustrated towards external visitors [31]. Crowding can occur in urban and residential areas, for example, in the form of congested traffic infrastructure and competition over access to services and amenities [5,31]; however, the perception of crowding can also occur in natural areas, which are often important venues for domestic tourism. In this case, crowding can restrict residents’ opportunities to pursue domestic tourism, for example, by expulsing them from tourist sites [32]. A high number of international visitors can necessitate access restrictions also applying to residents [33,34], and make locals feel as if they are competing with tourists for access to tourist and recreational sites [35]. Such constraints to residents’ opportunities to pursue domestic tourism have been shown to lower their support for tourism [32,35,36].
Crowding is not objective, and an increase in visitors at any given tourist site does not necessarily lead to an increase in perceived limitations of space [37,38,39,40]. Instead, crowding is “situational and depends on individual norms and values, as well as the perceived characteristics of other tourists“ [11]. According to Manning [41], there are three factors that influence crowding norms. First, it is the characteristics of visitors, including the motivation for their visit, and their preferences and expectations. Second, the characteristics of those encountered (e.g., behaviour of other visitors and the perceived alikeness with other visitors) also influence the extent to which crowding is perceived. Finally, the environment in which the encounters take place also impacts the perception of crowding. As such, encounter norms in the wilderness are likely to be lower compared to frontcountry settings [42].
One way in which residents can respond to overtourism and mitigate the negative impacts of crowding is through spatial displacement [43,44,45]. Spatial displacement involves either moving to another less used part of a crowded tourist site or visiting a new location with fewer visitors. The spatial displacement can be temporal, in which case congested tourist sites are only avoided during the high season or the busiest part of the day. Another form of responding to crowding is through cognitive coping mechanisms. In this case, the experience is re-evaluated from a different perspective that highlights the positive aspects with the aim of remaining satisfied. In other words, it is about “making the best of a bad situation” [44]. Lück and Seeler’s study [19] on domestic tourism in Aotearoa, New Zealand, is one of few studies that reveal how residents use coping mechanisms to respond to crowding. Their findings revealed that domestic tourists altered their travel behaviour to avoid crowds, either by visiting popular tourist sites in the off-season or by avoiding them altogether. As a result, “locals and domestic visitors are pushed further and further into the backcountry”, and thus, crowding ultimately resulted in negative impacts on residents’ travel behaviour and their opportunities for exploring domestic tourist sites [19]. In a study about tourism impacts on resident outdoor recreation experiences conducted in Hawaii [18], the participants identified both positive as well as negative impacts of tourism on their ability to pursue outdoor recreation. The majority (around 57%) claimed that tourists did not interfere with their own ocean recreation activities. Yet, 29% of the respondents also said that they visited surf sites that tourists were not familiar with, due to crowding, and 27% of those who snorkel avoided particular areas. Overall, the majority of participants emphasised that tourism development should conform with residents’ recreation needs rather than being based entirely on the needs of other visitors [18].

2.2. Overtourism in Iceland and the Emergence of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Iceland is one of the destinations that has most often been named as an example of an overtourism destination [15,16,46]. In 2010, there were approximately 500 thousand international tourists coming to Iceland (Figure 1), whereas this number had increased to more than 2 million visitors in 2019 [20]. Moreover, Iceland is a sparsely populated country, with only around 370,000 inhabitants on an island of just over 103,000 km2 [47]. At the beginning of this century, tourists already outnumbered the local population [20,47] (Figure 1).
This huge increase in tourist arrivals from 2011 onward has had various impacts on the country [15]. The extent of these impacts varies regionally, which has to do with the fact that tourists in Iceland are unevenly dispersed, both in time and space. Most of the international visitors arrive during summer (June–August), and visit the capital area as well as the south coast. Other parts of Iceland, such as the Westfjords, are less visited, particularly during winter. Hence, overtourism is not a countrywide problem [15].
Contrary to other destinations associated with overtourism [48,49], there has been no organized anti-tourism movement in Iceland. In fact, the residents have been rather positive towards tourism. Despite the increase in tourist arrivals, the percentage of residents who perceive tourists in Iceland to be rather many or too many during summer has decreased from 29% in 2014 to 19% in 2019 [24]. The residents’ positive attitude is first and foremost due to tourism’s economic benefits [24,25]. In 2015, tourism became Iceland’s largest export sector, with revenues of foreign travellers contributing to more than 30% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings [50]. Tourism also created various jobs [51], which has been particularly important in rural areas suffering from outmigration. Yet, there are also some negative impacts of tourism that the residents identify, including increased traffic on the roads, increased pricing, and negative tourist behaviour, particularly at nature sites. The residents also expressed concerns that there was less space for them, as, for instance, accommodation and other tourist services would rapidly become fully booked, making it hard to visit particular tourist sites. Furthermore, in 2019, around 44% of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that they avoided particular areas of Iceland where they knew that there were many tourists [24].
Unexpectedly, overtourism was put to a halt worldwide with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first cases of the novel coronavirus were reported in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. By the middle of March 2020, the virus had already reached 111 countries, and on March 11, the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic [52,53]. With no vaccine or medical interventions to treat the infected, countries relied on various other measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including travel restrictions, lockdowns, and quarantine.
The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the halt of international tourism had huge repercussions for Iceland’s economy. Tourist arrivals in 2020 dropped by 75% from the previous year, i.e., from 2 million in 2019 to less than 500 thousand in 2020 [20]. The implementation of various rules and regulations at the border of Iceland made it difficult for tourists to enter the country. From the middle of March, shortly after the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, up until the 15th of June 2020, all travellers needed to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival to Iceland. During this period, very few international visitors came to the country (Figure 2). After that, and at the time that this study was conducted, travellers could choose between undergoing a PCR test upon arrival or quarantining for 14 days [54]. With these restrictions, visitor numbers increased again, but remained significantly lower compared to 2019 (Figure 2). In July 2020, when this research was conducted, international visitors were 80% fewer than in July the previous year.
In order to boost tourism, the Icelandic government launched a promotional campaign called “Looks like you need Iceland” in early summer 2020 [55]. However, evidently international tourism would not reach its former state, and therefore, the government focused its efforts on boosting domestic tourism through marketing and promotional activities. Most notably, each resident of Iceland that was 18 years or older was given a ISK 5000 (c.a. EUR 30) gift certificate for tourism services such as hotels, restaurants, and various activities all around the country [56]. In addition, tourism companies were offering their services at exceptionally discounted prices in order to attract locals who previously had been repulsed by the high prices of tourism services.
A study published by the Icelandic Tourist Board [27] showed that approximately 86% of residents travelled domestically in Iceland in 2020, which is a similar rate as in previous years. Most of the respondents (80%) travelled in July, followed by August (64%), and June (61%). In addition to overnight trips, approximately 66% also reported that they had undertaken daytrips within Iceland in 2020; on average, 5.2 trips per resident.

3. Methods

3.1. The Study Area

The study site for this research was Landmannalaugar, which is a popular tourism destination in the southern part of the Icelandic Highlands. It is characterised by unique geological formations, such as colourful mountains, geothermal areas, and lava fields. Since 1979, the area has been protected as part of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve (Figure 3). There are many hiking trails in Landmannalaugar, including one of the most popular multi-day hiking trails in Iceland called Laugavegur, which connects Landmannalaugar with Þórsmörk, another popular nature destination in the southern Highlands.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, Landmannalaugar was visited by very few people, due to its remoteness, rough landscape, and unbridged glacial rivers that hindered access. With the installation of hydropower plants in the vicinity of Landmannalaugar in the 1960s and 1970s, the accessibility improved as roads and bridges were constructed. As visitation to the area increased, various forms of infrastructure were developed to accommodate the visitors, for example, a shelter for day visitors, a campsite, sanitary facilities, and a small shop.
Landmannalaugar is primarily a summer destination, due to the likelihood of extreme weather and heavy snow in winter. Most visitors arrive in July and August. Landmannalaugar is the most popular tourism destination in the Icelandic Highlands [57], with approximately 62 to 95 thousand visitors, depending on the method used for estimating the number of visitors [57,58]. In the summer of 2020, visitor numbers dropped by 69% from the previous year, according to vehicle counters [59].
A longitudinal study on tourist satisfaction in Landmannalaugar from 2000 to 2019 revealed that most visitors were generally satisfied with their stay, although the satisfaction rate dropped from 90% in 2000 to 77% in 2019 [23,29]. However, Icelandic visitors stood out as their satisfaction increased during the same period [60]. In 2019, their satisfaction was higher compared to other nationalities [29]. Crowding was the main cause of dissatisfaction, and increasingly so. In 2000, 22% of respondents perceived the number of visitors in Landmannalaugar as rather many or too many, whereas in 2019, this rate had risen to 45%. Icelanders were somewhat less sensitive towards crowding than other nationalities, with 38% of them perceiving the number of visitors as high or too high in 2019 [29].

3.2. The Interviews and Research Participants

To shed light on the experience of domestic tourists in Landmannalaugar in the summer of 2020, 51 visitors were interviewed during the last week of July. Many of them were travelling with a partner, friends, or family members, and were therefore interviewed together, resulting in a total of 33 semi-structured interviews. The selection of interviewees was based on a purposive strategy [61,62]. The aim was to sample a diverse group of individuals with legal residence in Iceland. As such, the sample included 26 male and 25 female participants with an age range of 18 to over 60 years. While some participants were camping in a tent, others overnighted in huts, and others came only for a daytrip to Landmannalaugar. For most, the purpose of their trip was to hike. Either they went on day hikes in the vicinity of Landmannalaugar, or their stop in Landmannalaugar was part of a multi-day hike, such as hiking the Laugavegur between Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk. The sample of interviewees included both first-time visitors as well as those who had previously been to Landmannalaugar.
The participants were approached on site, and each interview was conducted face-to-face. Following the establishment of informed consent, all the interviews were conducted in Icelandic, except for two interviews with immigrants conducted in English. The interview guide consisted of the following:
  • Personal identification, i.e., name and place of residence in Iceland.
  • Characteristics of their trip to Landmannalaugar, including how long they planned to stay in the area, what activities they engaged in, and whether their stay in Landmannalaugar was part of a larger trip within Iceland.
  • Their motivation for visiting Landmannalaugar in 2020.
  • The expectations for their stay in Landmannalaugar, as well as previous knowledge about Landmannalaugar. The participants were asked if they had been to Landmannalaugar before, and if so, how their previous experience had been compared to the experience in 2020.
  • Their experience in Landmannalaugar, and whether something was particularly enjoyable or disappointing.
  • Their perception of the number of visitors and crowding in Landmannalaugar.
Emphasis was placed on allowing the interviewees to describe their experiences on their own terms. The topics covered during each interview were thus not limited to those listed above.
All interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim. The analysis was based on grounded theory methodology [63,64], using both open and axial coding. The software Atlas.ti was used for the coding process. Using qualitative data analysis software allowed efficient management of the data, enhanced the study’s transparency, and ensured the adoption of a systematic and efficient coding process [65]. The coding process consisted of several rounds, starting with open coding, during which the interview data were organised by assigning descriptive codes relating to the content of interview segments. Axial coding was then used to identify links between the emerging codes, which made it possible to identify four fundamental themes within the interview data. In the following, the results are presented and structured according to the four themes.

4. Results

4.1. Landmannalaugar Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic

According to the participants, landscape is the main attraction in Landmannalaugar, particularly the colourfulness of the mountains and its wilderness characteristic. In addition, Landmannalaugar was said to be attractive due to its peaceful atmosphere and the chance to experience solitude. In this context, one of the participants said that in Landmannalaugar, one has the chance to “feel as if you are alone in the world”. This seemed to be especially important for participants who lived in the capital area. Regardless of whether the participants had previously been to Landmannalaugar or not, most expressed concerns about the growth of tourism in Landmannalaugar prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the consequent degradation of the area’s natural quality and peacefulness.
Many of those participants who had visited Landmannalaugar during the tourism expansion in the previous years, and were thus able to report their own experiences from the time, said that high visitation in Landmannalaugar had put stress on the natural environment, and that crowding had made it difficult or even impossible for them to enjoy solitude in the area. Growth in tourism had thus spoiled their experience. One interviewee said:
We know what it was like twenty-five years ago. There was nobody here then, not during summer and not during winter. Just a few people. Especially in winter, you would just be alone in nature. Then I came here on a motorcycle about four years ago. After a long wait. And it was a culture shock to see what had happened. One bus next to the other, one tent next to the other.
As a result, some of the participants acknowledged that they had avoided travelling to the area in recent years, and had instead visited other highland destinations that were less popular. Some mentioned their concerns regarding the feasibility of overnighting:
We have not stayed here overnight in many years. It’s simply been full. Just no space. You are just right up to the next person and we prefer not to be in these crowds. If that is the case, you might just as well go to Lækjartorg (main square in the city centre of Reykjavík).
Those who had the experience of visiting Landmannalaugar recently also stated that, at the time, meeting Icelanders in Landmannalaugar had been an exception. The fact that international visitors had greatly outnumbered domestic tourists clearly disturbed them. Describing a recent visit to Landmannalaugar, one of the participants, for example, had not been able to hear Icelandic anywhere, and said that this had negatively impacted their experience.
Most of those who had not visited Landmannalaugar in years, or were visiting the area for the first time, had also heard about the growth of tourism in Landmannalaugar and its negative impact on nature experiences in a pristine and peaceful environment. Thus, some of the respondents stated that they had put off a visit to Landmannalaugar despite wanting to visit it.

4.2. Opportunities for Domestic Tourism

The interviews revealed that the emergence of the pandemic was perceived as an opportunity to finally experience the area (again) without crowds. In this vein, one interviewee said that “Covid is a bit of a relief”, as it provided a needed break from high visitation, and made travelling to Landmannalaugar more pleasant compared to pre-COVID times. In fact, many said that the sudden drop in tourism was one of their motivations for visiting Landmannalaugar that particular summer. Those who had recently visited Landmannalaugar appreciated the chance to re-experience the area without large crowds. As for those who had never visited Landmannalaugar, or at least not in a long time, this summer presented an opportunity to finally visit Landmannalaugar, now that visitation had declined and the facilities would in fact be sufficient for the number of people in the area. One participant, for example, said:
You know, there are many who are thinking that now is a good chance, you know, now that there is not as much tourism. Then you are maybe a bit more intrigued to visit the main places which, you know, you have been thinking “Ugh no, it’s way too crowded, I don’t want to go there”.
Moreover, the interviewees perceived the decline in international tourism as a unique chance to experience, not only Landmannalaugar, but also other popular tourism destinations in Iceland, without large crowds. Many, therefore, said they were trying to make the most out of the summer of 2020 by travelling to multiple previously overcrowded tourist sites.

4.3. Perception of the Decline in International Tourism

Overall, participants perceived the lessening of visitation to Landmannalaugar as positive, and most of them said they were very happy with their visit to the area in 2020. Those who could compare their visit to previous ones claimed that their experience of the area had improved significantly, not least because of the drop in numbers of visitors. According to the participants, having fewer visitors also made it possible to enjoy some activities that had been difficult to pursue prior to the pandemic. For example, one interviewee said they wanted to bike in the area. In recent years, this had been challenging due to crowds on the hiking paths, but now it had become possible again. In addition, many participants mentioned that the infrastructure was now suitable for the number of visitors, in contrast to previous years where the facilities had been constantly overused.
Despite the steep decline in tourist arrivals at Landmannalaugar in the summer of 2020, most of the participants expressed that they were surprised that there were still quite a lot of visitors in Landmannalaugar. Yet, they did not perceive the number of visitors as too high, nor did they express that the number of visitors was disturbing their experience. When asked, only two participants said they were negatively affected by the number of tourists. One of them said:
What I find most appealing is being far away from civilisation. It was sort of difficult to get here yesterday. We were on a horse back in a landscape where we were alone in the world. The whole world was just ours. Then we rode into this area (Landmannalaugar) and just “ugh”, so full of people. I don’t enjoy that.
The other participant was worried that the high number of visitors would make it difficult to maintain social distancing, and to keep the sanitary facilities hygienic enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Landmannalaugar.
Although the rest of the interviewees said that the number of tourists was not having a negative impact on their experience of the area, some still mentioned that ideally, they would have liked to visit the area alone or with only a few visitors. They realized, however, that this was unrealistic, as Landmannalaugar is a popular tourism destination, not only among international visitors, but also among Icelandic residents. A few noted that unlike many other highland destinations, Landmannalaugar is reasonably accessible, as it can be reached via public transportation and with smaller all-wheel-drive vehicles. They also acknowledged that the area allows for the practice of diverse recreational activities (e.g., short- and long-distance hiking, biking, and horse riding), which attracts various types of visitors. Thus, a high number of visitors is to be expected.
Despite being generally content with fewer tourists visiting Iceland, some interviewees pointed out the importance of tourism in terms of the economy. For them, the fact that there were still quite a lot of visitors in Landmannalaugar was seen as beneficial for Iceland’s economy. One participant said:
I have to say that there are more people here than I expected given the circumstances we have right now. For the economy, of course, and the people running the tourism business here and everything, that is positive. Of course, you enjoy it more when there are fewer people around. There are pros and cons to everything. But yeah, if we consider what this summer looked like at the beginning of the pandemic, then the number of people here is just really positive.

4.4. Perception of Increased Domestic Tourism

The rise in domestic tourism coinciding with a decline in international tourism noticeably resulted in a different visitor composition in the summer of 2020. As noted above, many of the interviewees claimed that they had hardly encountered Icelanders in Landmannalaugar prior to the pandemic, as international tourists had outnumbered the domestic ones by far. One participant said:
I feel like it’s been quite disappointing these past few years that we have not been able to connect with our own nature attractions. But now is our chance.
As a result of the pandemic, domestic tourists were no longer overshadowed by international ones, making many of the participants feel “as if we are reclaiming our country”.
The increase in domestic tourism was perceived as a positive impact of the pandemic, since meeting fellow countrymen made their experience of Landmannalaugar more enjoyable. In 2020, it was easier to connect and chat with other travellers, as described by this participant:
Before, there were more people. We didn’t hear a lot of Icelandic. So, it is very fun right now to hear this much Icelandic and we have already talked to so many people, you know.
The participants were well aware of the fact that domestic tourism had increased countrywide, not only in Landmannalaugar. Many had already visited other tourist sites and had noticed that they mostly encountered Icelandic-speaking tourists during their trip, indicating that the pandemic had sparked a general interest among the public to travel domestically. Most participants stressed that they often travelled domestically, particularly during summer, and hoped that those who usually spent their holidays abroad but were visiting tourist sites in Iceland this year would continue to travel domestically in the future. They argued that travelling domestically was an important aspect of living in Iceland, and that it is something that every resident of Iceland should do:
You notice that there are obviously more Icelanders travelling this summer, you know. They seem to be travelling around the whole country, thankfully. I think it’s very important that you get to know your country. To travel a bit in your own country and not always just abroad. I say that if you do not visit the main nature attractions in Iceland, then you are really missing out.
In fact, of those participants who usually travel abroad, most said that they highly enjoyed exploring their own country, and that they were considering travelling within Iceland more often; as this participant put it:
Travelling this much in Iceland this summer has got me thinking: “Yes, I am just always going to do this in the future, use the summer in Iceland to travel in Iceland and if I want to go abroad I will rather do that in winter”.

5. Discussion and Implications

The results of this study shed light on some impacts of overtourism that, up until now, have not received much attention within tourism research, i.e., the impacts of overtourism on residents’ opportunities for pursuing domestic tourism at nature destinations. The study identifies that the residents of Iceland perceived the temporary break from overtourism as a benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic, as it allowed them to travel to previously overcrowded destinations that they had been avoiding, such as Landmannalaugar, and experience them without crowds. As such, they regarded the summer of 2020 as a unique opportunity to “reclaim” nature destinations that, in recent years, had been dominated by international tourists.
The findings reveal that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, residents had perceived there to be crowding in Landmannalaugar as well as at other popular nature destinations, which is in line with previous studies on the impacts of (over)tourism on Icelandic residents [22,23,24,25]. As a result of crowding, overtourism in Landmannalaugar caused what Kearsley and Coughlan [44] refer to as “spatial displacement” of domestic tourists. This study confirms the spatial displacement of residents from tourist sites as a consequence of overtourism [18,19,24]. In the case of Landmannalaugar, many of the participants had altered their travel behaviours by visiting less-crowded destinations. In part, this spatial displacement was forced, since infrastructure was at its maximum capacity due to the large influx of international visitors. Others were displaced on a voluntary basis, as they chose to visit less-crowded tourist sites. To them, a trip to Landmannalaugar had become unappealing since it was not possible to enjoy the solitude that they wanted to experience. Wilderness and solitude are an important part of the attraction of Icelandic highland destinations such as Landmannalaugar [23,66,67], but crowding threatens these qualities [23]. Results from a longitudinal study on visitation to Landmannalaugar revealed that the satisfaction of Icelandic visitors had increased between 2000 and 2019, eventually making them the most satisfied group of visitors compared to other nationalities in 2019 [29,60]. This, along with the fact that Icelanders were also less sensitive towards crowding than other nationalities [60], suggests that those domestic tourists who visited Landmannalaugar prior to the COVID-19 pandemic did not necessarily regard solitude and peacefulness as an important component of their desired experience when they travelled to Landmannalaugar. It underlines that those who did in fact seek solitude and peace had been spatially displaced from Landmannalaugar to less-known and more isolated destinations.
This study takes advantage of the unique opportunity to investigate a phenomenon that has hitherto been insufficiently researched, i.e., a reversion of spatial displacement. Due to the reduction in international tourists in Landmannalaugar following the COVID-19 pandemic, the area became attractive again for domestic tourists seeking to experience peaceful nature, and thus, many of the participants went from being displaced by international tourists to replacing them. Having fewer international visitors in Landmannalaugar had a positive impact on the experience of domestic tourists during the summer of 2020. Firstly, it led to a significant reduction in the perception of crowding in Landmannalaugar, with the vast majority of participants claiming that they felt that the number of visitors to the area was not too high. Secondly, the reduction in tourist arrivals to Iceland also led to a change in the ratio of domestic to international tourists, and made it possible to engage with fellow domestic tourists, which further enhanced their experience.
The findings of this study have several implications. First, they suggest that overtourism can result in fortifying the boundaries between residents and tourists, which are often referred to as “hosts” and “guests” [6,7]. Studies on the attitudes of Icelanders have consistently revealed that they are positive towards tourists and the tourism industry, and that their positivity is even strengthened despite an increase in the number of tourists [24,25]. However, what the present study clearly shows is that the participants made a definite distinction between “us” (residents/hosts) and “them” (tourists/guests). Domestic tourists were perceived as one group with unifying characteristics, particularly because of their common language. The increase in encounters with other domestic tourists was regarded as positive, which in itself could be seen as contradictory, given that most expressed a wish to meet as few tourists as possible. However, it underlines that the perception of crowding depends on various factors, including the characteristics of those who are encountered [41]. As such, encountering tourists from their own group, i.e., domestic tourists, was perceived as positive, as opposed to encounters with “others”.
The results of this study also underline the importance of shedding light on the experience and satisfaction of domestic tourists. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic nature-based tourism is expected to grow [68]. Yet, little attention has been paid to domestic tourists, not only within academia, but also within the tourism industry, with pre-COVID-19 tourism marketing having been disproportionately focused on growing international demand [19]. Iceland is a case in point, as it was only due to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic that the Icelandic tourism industry started to seriously focus its marketing efforts towards the local population, for example, by offering discounted services, in order to make domestic tourism attractive for residents. However, we argue that encouraging and supporting domestic tourism is important, not only during times of economic recession and international travel restrictions. Ensuring that recreational opportunities remain available for residents, and are not dominated by international visitors, is an important aspect for securing the support for tourism development [32,35,36], not least in the Nordic countries, which have long-standing traditions in terms of outdoor recreation and domestic tourism [68]. Moreover, encouraging domestic tourism is one way to increase the sustainability of tourism. In the case of Iceland, tourism is heavily dependent on air traffic, which is the main mode of transportation to and from the island. In 2019, 80% of Iceland’s population travelled abroad, and each resident went on 2.6 international trips on average [27]. By reducing international travel and encouraging domestic tourism, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced considerably, thus contributing to the sustainability of tourism [69].

6. Conclusions

This study set out to investigate the experience of domestic tourists in a tourism destination that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, had been known for crowding. The results reveal that, overall, the break from overtourism in 2020 was welcomed by domestic tourists. Domestic tourists went from being displaced to replacing international tourists, and they enjoyed the opportunity to engage with fellow domestic tourists.
While this study focused on the pandemic’s impact on nature destinations and the experience of domestic tourists, the reduction in tourist arrivals also had a financial impact. This economic impact was not the subject of the study, but is nevertheless important for the study’s context. At the time of this study, the underlying assumption was that the break from overtourism was temporary, and that the COVID-19 pandemic will eventually end. It is important to acknowledge this, as it may have wide-ranging implications for how residents perceive the decline in tourist arrivals. While residents may be happy about a temporary break, their perceptions might be entirely different if tourism in Iceland was to cease altogether, since a long-term reduction in tourist arrivals would cause a severe economic downturn. At the time that this paper was written, most travel restrictions had been lifted again. What will tourism look like on a global scale once all travel restrictions can be lifted? Will the pandemic have long-lasting effects on peoples’ willingness to travel, or their travel behaviour? Furthermore, will tourism in Iceland and Landmannalaugar return to a state of overtourism? If so, how will domestic tourism be affected? Will domestic tourists be displaced again? These questions remain unanswered for now, but provide interesting future research topics.
While it is uncertain whether Iceland will return to a state of overtourism, the decline in tourist arrivals due to the COVID-19 pandemic surely presents a chance to reconsider the management of tourism destinations, particularly for nature destinations suffering from overtourism, and to find ways to mitigate the negative impacts of tourism on nature, and on the experiences of both tourists and residents [70,71]. In the case of tourism destinations of outstanding natural beauty, such as Landmannalaugar, it is evident that crowding caused by large increases in the number of international visitors to the country can have negative impacts on the experience of domestic tourists, and can drive them away from the area. The main implication that can be derived from this study is that if or when international tourism recovers, real efforts have to be made to address the needs and wants of residents and support the development of domestic tourism, as this may contribute towards more sustainable travel in the future.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, M.W., A.D.S. and E.R.H.W.; Formal analysis, M.W.; Funding acquisition, E.R.H.W. and A.D.S.; Methodology, M.W., A.D.S. and E.R.H.W.; Project administration, A.D.S.; Writing—original draft, M.W.; Writing—review & editing, M.W., A.D.S. and E.R.H.W. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received funding from the University of Iceland Research fund.

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.


We would like to thank Þórhildur Heimisdóttir and Lovísa Halldórsdóttir for assistance during the data collection.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. The growth of the population of Iceland and international tourist arrivals to Iceland [20,47].
Figure 1. The growth of the population of Iceland and international tourist arrivals to Iceland [20,47].
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Figure 2. Number of international visitors arriving at Iceland through Keflavík airport [20].
Figure 2. Number of international visitors arriving at Iceland through Keflavík airport [20].
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Figure 3. The study area, Landmannalaugar, and the Fjallabak Nature Reserve.
Figure 3. The study area, Landmannalaugar, and the Fjallabak Nature Reserve.
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Wendt, M.; Sæþórsdóttir, A.D.; Waage, E.R.H. A Break from Overtourism: Domestic Tourists Reclaiming Nature during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Tour. Hosp. 2022, 3, 788-802.

AMA Style

Wendt M, Sæþórsdóttir AD, Waage ERH. A Break from Overtourism: Domestic Tourists Reclaiming Nature during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Tourism and Hospitality. 2022; 3(3):788-802.

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Wendt, Margrét, Anna Dóra Sæþórsdóttir, and Edda R. H. Waage. 2022. "A Break from Overtourism: Domestic Tourists Reclaiming Nature during the COVID-19 Pandemic" Tourism and Hospitality 3, no. 3: 788-802.

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