How Iceland is overestimating the number of tourists

The increased number of foreign visitors in Iceland has become a popular subject in variuous international media but the growth is smaller than the official statistics say.

Námaskarð, situated on the north side of Lake Myvatn. Credit:

If you’re flying to Iceland, in all likelihood you will be landing at Keflavik Airport, situated 45 km (30 miles) from Reykjavik, the capital. Therefore, the main official counting of tourists in Iceland is conducted at the airport. The method is simple; all departing passengers present their passports just before entering the security control and their nationality is registered. This gives the authorities the total number of foreigners flying from the country plus a breakdown by country of origin.

The results for last year showed that the number of foreign visitors in Iceland grew to 2.195.271 in 2017, which is a big leap from the 1.767.726 in 2016 and four times as many visitors than in 2011. But the methodology behind the counting has been criticized for the fact that all foreigners living in Iceland are counted as tourists since they present non-Icelandic pass at security. At the same time Icelandic expats visiting their home country are not included in the visitor number.

This medium,, has also pointed out that there were signs that the number of self-connecting passengers at Keflavik Airport could be causing a deviation in figures as well. This became evident when the number of tourists suddenly started growing much faster than the number of foreign overnight stays. This trend may well have been started by the increased number of airlines and more frequent flights, which on the other hand makes Keflavik Airport a more convenient option for people traveling between North-America and Europe.

These speculations were cause for considerable debate in the Icelandic tourism sector and consequently two special surveys were conducted by the national airport authorities. The results for the first one proved that 11% of the foreign visitors in July were in fact self-connecting passengers who didn’t spend the night in Iceland and were therefore not tourists by definition. However, the percentage was lower (3,3%) in November. The results also suggested that foreigners living in Iceland accounted for a substantial share of the visitor number.

The crux of the matter is that the official number of tourists in Iceland has been overestimated by up to one tenth last year. This means that in 2017 Iceland did definitely not get almost 2.2 million visitor and more likely the real figure is at a little under 2 million.