07 March 2020

Vox: “My own private Iceland”

My first stop after Keflavik is the Blue Lagoon, a short, sparsely filled bus ride away. It’s recognizable from photos: a luminous pool of bright-blue water, like an aqueous latte, set amid jagged black volcanic rocks. But rather than the idyllic natural hot spring it resembles on Instagram, it’s actually a kind of giant artificial bathtub filled with wastewater from a nearby geothermal power plant. The Svartsengi power plant opened in 1976 and its superheated liquid and steam bubbled up through the surrounding lava field; one psoriasis patient bathed in it and saw an improvement and thus a business began.

Blue Lagoon built a cement-bottomed pool that spreads out in a faux-organic layout and a clutch of modernist spa buildings. In 2017, the site accommodated 1.2 million visitors who buy timed entrance tickets and pay extra for bathrobes and drinks at the lagoon’s float-up bar. “Can you imagine how many people have sex in it?” the Icelandic politician Birgitta Jonsdottir later asks me. The 240°C water that gets pumped from deep underground is so mineral-heavy, however, that no bacteria can survive, even after it gets cooled down to bathing temperature for visitors to soak in.

Kyle Chayka

Last year I visited Iceland for the second time, after my city break in Amsterdam, and still many of the stories and facts from this article were unknown to me. Compared to the spring of 2016, I’ve noticed how tourism changed some of the popular sports we visit as photographers, which now had fences to keep people from walking too far in dangerous places, or to step on delicate flora. As the article discusses at lengths, the massive inflow of tourists has been a double-edged sword for Iceland. But, no matter how much locals complain about it, the country has benefitted from an tourist-induced economic boom for the past decade. It will be interesting to see how recent travel restrictions – and wide-spread fear – caused by the coronavirus epidemic will impact Iceland’s popularity as travel destination. I for one am certainly planning to return!

Iceland signature local moss
Nature is delicate in Iceland. Tourists are fenced onto pathways so as not to disturb plants including the signature local moss, which can take decades to grow back

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