By Óðinn Kári Karlsson. Edited and curated by Alondra Silva Muñoz
In Iceland, we value our environment greatly. It is our main resource for the nation’s economy in the form of rich fishing grounds, vast amounts of energy and more recently international tourism. The rapid growth in the tourism sector in the last decade has been significant and both the people and authorities of Iceland have struggled to cope with it.
Although the effect of the tourism sector in the country has been largely beneficial, still there are some difficulties related to the behaviour of tourists. In Iceland, we have been lucky enough with visitors that want to leave only a positive impact in the country, but there is always room for improvement and in this article we will mention some of them.
These are 5 ways a traveller can adopt to have positive impact when visiting Iceland:
- Stay on designated paths
This point is important both because of safety issues and environmental impact. Firstly, the policy about infrastructure at natural site is that ropes, chains, gates and rails must be kept to a minimum to not decrease the natural value of a place. It is evident at popular places like Geysir and Gullfoss where only a few small ropes separate the visitor from possibly getting 3rd degree burns if they’re lucky, or falling to their death. The nature of the island is raw and unforgiving, but perfectly safe when local guidelines are respected.
Secondly, Icelandic nature, especially flora and geological formations are incredibly delicate. Just a footprint of one person in a delicate area such as the Geothermal fields of Geysir and Námaskarð can stay there for years, possibly decades. Furthermore, Icelandic Flora is very delicate because of both a very short growing season due to limited sunlight and a harsh climate but also because Icelandic soil is easily erodible and a big part of it is susceptible to desertification. This also applies to other areas, for example, Arnastapi in the peninsula of Snæfellsnes.
- Don’t build cairns or other landmarks in nature
This is a common problem in many areas of the world like at Neist Point in Scotland and in Canadian national parks. Many people think they are harmless and it’s easy to understand why regular people do. However they are nothing more than nature graffiti. People have an urge to put their mark on the places they have been and building cairns is a part of that. However manmade cairns have a negative impact of people’s experience in natural places and especially wilderness because they denote human impact or presence. We want everyone to be able to experience the mostly untouched landscape that is Iceland.
Furthermore, the earliest settlers of Iceland and their descendants built cairns all around the country to act as waypoints between settlements and were crucial in that time because of the treacherous weather and landscape people had to walk through. Many of these still stand today and are a cultural relic so building more cairns erodes the historical value of these structures for us that live here.
Lastly, cross country hikers and farmers still use these cairns when cell phone coverage is low and weather turns bad sharply, so building a new cairn can in fact endanger the lives of people that have to use them in from time to time. There is one place where cairn building is tolerated and that is near the Harpa concert house in Reykjavík. If you must build a cairn for your social media, please do it there.
- Avoid using AirBnB in Reykjavík
Icelandic economy is, in some ways, still dealing with the financial crisis of 2008. This led to the entire banking system collapsing along with a large part of the financial sector and the greatest recession in Iceland since the Great Depression. Since 2008 very few homes were built to meet demand, and then the rise in the tourism industry also had construction companies preoccupied in building tourism infrastructure and hotels. So now an accumulated need for housing is very high and that was then further distorted with the emergence of AirBnB resulting in desperately needed housing disappearing into the tourism industry.
This has led to housing prices and rent prices soaring into heights never seen in Iceland and is causing regular working people a great deal of harm. The most affected by the increasing prices of rent caused by this AirBnB hype are the people with the lowest income, students, and young professionals. The tourism industry does bring a lot of economic benefits for Iceland, but for regular working class people in Reykjavík, it is quite the opposite. Please consider this before booking your AirBnb in Reykjavík. Note, the housing crisis is limited to Reykjavík. AirBnB’s outside of Reykjavík should be fine.
Some argue that after a few years now, though, the hotel offer is finally meeting the demand for accommodation in the city, so try and check out the best hotels in the areas that you will be visiting or using guesthouses to support local economies and family-run businesses.
- Do not off-road
Off-roading in Iceland is strictly prohibited and people caught doing it will be prosecuted and are subject to very high fines. Off-roading is illegal because of a number of reasons. First and foremost, it can result in the start of soil erosion which can in turn contribute to desertification. Soil erosion and desertification are one of the biggest environmental issues in Iceland and the problem is so massive that geology and ecology students from other countries visit Iceland to witness them. If you don’t want to enrage Icelanders by your conduct, do not off-road.
Like pointed out in point number one, Icelandic nature is very delicate. So because of that, off-roading can leave scars in the landscape for decades. Even in places like Skeiðarársandur which most people think is just sand and the tracks will go away, they couldn’t be more wrong. These tracks will stay there for a very long time and they will decrease the natural value of the visitors after them.
In the same line, it is also not advisable to stop your car in the middle of the road in rural areas or in the middle of an avenue in the city. This can be tremendously dangerous for other cars driving. Other behaviors related to sudden stops when driving should be taken into consideration, such as: stopping to take a picture of the area or taking a picture in the middle of the road. Please, refrain from this and consider all the risks and hazards taken just for this one picture.
- Be mindful of your impact
The vast majority of visitors do this very well and we are thankful for that. Try to pick locally made souvenirs, not imported products that are not produced through fair trade. Respect the private space of the locals, like by not taking photos in people’s yards or camping on a farmer’s land without permission. Take your litter with you, sometimes there’s a long distance between bins, but keep in mind Iceland is big and sparsely populated.
Also note in many areas such as national parks, national reserves, state protected natural phenomena and other places drone flying is restricted. If unsure, ask if it’s okay before you fly your drone, they are restricted both because of noise and wildlife. You might need permission from a local or national authority which is the case of Svinafellsjökull, for example, in Skaftafell where many tour operators conduct glacier hikes and ice climbing tours.
Additionaly, flying a drone near nesting areas of birds during spring and summer can cause nest desertion which can have a negative impact on bird populations. Don’t disturb wildlife or farm animals unnecessarily, this is also their home.