A small fisher’s town takes on the cruising giants

“Cruise ships are always going to be part of Ísafjörður. My dream is that Ísafjörður has a framework, that it’s OK to say no, and if it’s full it’s full”

Case area

On the Westfjords peninsula, in the northwest of Iceland, in the fjord Skutulsfjörður surrounded by steep mountains, lies the town of Ísafjörður. It is the largest town of its municipality, although it only has around 2750 inhabitants. Fishing has dominated the town’s economy for centuries, although the industry is slowly being scaled down. In its place, the tourism and service industry are growing rapidly and have become one of the main industries. The town’s downtown area, as well as neighbouring towns and nature attractions such as Dynjandi waterfall, the Hornstrandir nature reserve and Vigur Island, are popular destinations.

Cruise situation

Only a small portion of land-based tourists come to Ísafjörður, even though the town has an operating airport, and cruise tourism is therefore all the more important. Ísafjörður is conveniently situated between two of Iceland’s major cruise ports, Reykjavík and Akureyri. However, the harbor was originally only meant for fishing activities, and the town does not have enough resources, such as guides, tours and public transportation, to serve the large number of visitors. Despite this, many locals feel that cruise tourism enlivens the town and provides ample opportunities. Many people and local businesses are involved in the cruise tourism industry and have become dependent on the income from the cruise passengers over the summer season. 

Case issues

The local residents have an ambivalent relation with cruise tourists. Some locals complain about their presence, as the tourists behave improperly and disrespect their privacy by walking through their gardens or peeking through their windows. They do not seem to realize that people actually live in those beautiful houses, that look like heritage sites. 

Another concern is another infrastructural one, as tourists have to walk right through the fishery working area. This can be dangerous because of big trucks and heavy machines. Aside from the clashes with the fishing industry, there is also tension with nature conservation. Sometimes closing a nature area might be a good solution for traffic control and preservation, but this can also endanger the arrivals of cruise ships at a destination.

The planning of guided tours also lead to problems with capacity, as these tours and excursions are hosted and organized by the same operators. Therefore, these experiences may often be fully booked by cruise tourists, leaving little to no available spots for other visitors. 

Local solutions

Currently, the port of Ísafjörður is under construction. The pier Sundabakki has been extended to a total of 500 meters, and they are currently deepening the pier, in order to meet the needs of the continuing arrival of cruise ships. This will allow larger ships to actually dock at the port, instead of anchoring further away at the bay, which will result in higher revenue for the port of Ísafjörður. The improvement of infrastructure has high priority, otherwise the large number of cruise tourists will lead to environmental problems and unpleasant experiences for both local residents and other tourists. 

The municipality has also, a few years back, given out guidelines to cruise passengers on how to behave in town, notifying them of the danger of traffic and heavy machinery and to respect locals’ privacy. Another similar guideline was published by AECO in 2022. This has resulted in fewer complaints by the locals in town. 

The port, together with local tourism businesses and the harbor committee, have begun working on implementing limitations on cruise ships arrivals for each day. What is currently being discussed is how many cruise ships Ísafjörður can handle at a time considering the available infrastructure. It is important for the people in Ísafjörður that cruise tourists leave happy with their visit, and if the local tourism industry is unable to service everyone, it will negatively affect the satisfaction of visitors. 

Conclusion and Take-Away

The cruise industry is an important economic contributor for Ísafjörður. Many locals emphasize the need for local staff and local knowledge, in order to preserve authentic and high quality of tourist experiences. The majority of local parties also agree about putting limitation regulations in place, although some fear that if cruise ships are denied to port once because of these regulations, they will not come ever again. Aside from this, smaller, luxurious ships are often preferred because they bring a limited number of guests and are smoothly and very well organized. It is difficult however to ban some cruise ships and allow others, and not everyone agrees on picking and choosing which ships to take in. Many do also point out that this should not be a local decision and should be the Icelandic government’s initiative and be implemented nationwide.