Developing Sustainable Tourism in the land of fire and ice

By Olivia Burton 


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 2010, news footage of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano expelling plumes of black smoke and ash against the clear blue Icelandic sky captivated viewers around the world. At night, glowing splashes of lava and volcanic lightning created an otherworldly scene. Grounding flights in Europe for over a week, it was the biggest disruption to air travel since World War II.

Following increased media attention from the eruption, the number of international tourists to Iceland began to increase at mind-boggling rates. According to the Icelandic Tourist Board, just 4,383 foreign visitors traveled to Iceland in 1950. The number of tourists to Iceland crept upwards steadily as air travel became more popular from the 1950s to the 1980s, at which point it began to increase almost exponentially. Tourists first outnumbered the island nation’s population of about 300,000 at the turn of the century.

From 2010 to 2011, immediately after the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, the number of tourists grew from 488,622 to 565,511, an increase of 18.9%. More recently, from 997,556 visitors in 2014 to 1,289,140 visitors in 2015, the number grew by 29.2%.

Now, the Icelandic Tourist Board estimates that 2016 will bring 1.5 million tourists to Iceland, whose population is currently 323,000 people. The rapid increase in tourism has helped revive the country’s economy after its collapse in 2008, yet it has also brought significant growing pains. Now with almost five visitors for every Icelander, the island nation must ensure that its growing tourism industry will be economically and environmentally sustainable.


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n addition to Eyjafjallajökull, film and other media have played a significant role in advertising Iceland. In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), Ben Stiller skateboards down the gentle slopes of Iceland’s famous Ring Road. And For just 685 Euros, travellers can book a five-day Game of Thrones tour with Jon Thor Benediktsson, who guided the film crew during the filming of the third season.

Colin Barton of Arctic Adventures compared Iceland’s appeal to that of his home country of New Zealand. Like Game of Thrones, the Lord of the Rings movies introduced viewers to New Zealand’s stunning landscapes. But the natural beauty, not Frodo, he says, is the real draw.

Descriptions of Iceland in travel guides often call it a “land of extremes” or allude to its supposedly mystical qualities. “Iceland is a landscape full of legends,” says the Lonely Planet guide. The official Icelandic tourism site,, says, “Iceland is a country of sharp contrasts. A place where fire and ice co-exist.”

Iceland’s language of extremes, says Stefan Gössling, PhD, Professor of Service Management and Service Studies at Lund University, was “developed strategically, but unconsciously to some degree.” The myth of Iceland is both imposed upon it by travel guides with labels like “The Land of Fire and Ice” and deliberately created from within to meet tourists’ expectations.

Cut through the slogans, however, and Iceland’s natural appeal shines through. “Its appeal is the organic, natural landscape, the lava fields, the highlands, and the waterfalls, instead of puppet parks or something that’s been tailored and designed. It’s so wild in that sense,” said Hrund Gunnsteinsdottir, a Yale World Fellow from Iceland. When people drive from the airport into Reykjavík, she said, crossing the lava fields makes them feel as if they are on the moon.


[dropcap]G[/dropcap]uðjón Magnússon and his wife, Anna Björk, founded the non-profit organization Ecotourist Iceland in 2012 out of concern for the rapid growth of Iceland’s tourism industry. Ecotourist Iceland works to create an online community of environmentally friendly accommodations and services for travelers.

Magnússon compared the growth of tourism to Iceland’s Herring Era. Industrial herring fishing was Iceland’s first major industry—so influential that during the 20th century the herring fisheries “sometimes accounted for nearly half of Iceland’s national income,” according to Reykjavik’s Herring Era Museum. Herring came to be known as “Iceland’s gold” until overfishing caused the herring stocks to collapse.

To Magnússon, tourism might be another Icelandic “gold rush.”

“When we learned how to really fish herring, we rented planes to follow it and went with everything we had,” he said. “We cleaned it out of the ocean in just a few years. And then when the tourists came, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted and brought so much publicity that tourists began to pour in, we went for that as we did with the herring. We put everything we had into pumping them as quickly as we could through the system. Because maybe in our guts, we didn’t know how long this would last. It’s like gold fever.”


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 2008, Iceland’s banking system collapsed, leading to a severe economic depression.

“Iceland had invested a lot of money in foreign funds, Icelandic banks were involved with other banks, and when they all came down, it was a major hit to the Icelandic economy. Tourism survived,” said Professor Gössling.

During the crisis, the Icelandic króna depreciated by more than 35% from January to September 2008. In 2007, one króna was worth approximately 0.017 USD. Today, one króna is roughly 0.009 USD.  

“Since the financial crisis, with Iceland’s króna dropping to such a low level, Iceland has been more accessible for tourists,” said Barton.

“And because of that, the industry is in kind of a gold rush phase,” he added. “The percentage of tourists coming has been so much larger than the previous ten years that, in many ways, Iceland is struggling to cope. It’s really buckling at the seams.”

Gunnsteinsdottir has recognized the adverse effects of tourism’s rapid growth in downtown Reykjavik. “A lot of flats are being used as AirBnBs and hotels, and I’m not sure to what extent our authorities have a plan,” she said.

Ultimately, Gunnsteinsdottir concluded, tourism has its pros and cons. “It’s been a boost for many people for sure,” she said. “I have friends who took a big risk right after the bank collapse to build small hotels, and they have done brilliantly.”

The industry’s growth has provided a much-needed economic stimulus, but how long will that last? And, perhaps more importantly, how will the tourism boom affect Iceland’s fragile environment?


[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s the tourism industry continues to grow, an increasing number of Icelanders are also concerned about the environmental impact of tourism. According to the Icelandic Tourist Board, 75% of Icelanders believed that tourism “causes too much of a strain on Icelandic nature” in 2016, compared to 66.3% in 2015.

When Norse settlers first arrived on Iceland’s shores in the 9th century, they were completely alone. Because they settled largely on the coasts, the interior highlands remained untouched for centuries. Today, according to Europarc, Iceland has 102 protected areas encompassing over 21% of the country’s total land area.

One of the most noticeable impacts of tourism for Iceland is the damage that fleets of tour buses inflict on the roads, especially the Ring Road, a two-lane highway circling the country as it passes by fields of Icelandic moss, quaint villages, fjords, volcanoes, and glaciers. Frost heaves already make it difficult to maintain roads that were not originally intended for hundreds of large tour buses.

“I love tourists, I love guests, no problem,” said Magnússon. “But the way we are doing this is absolutely wrong. We are pumping tourists—not travellers—through the pipes as fast as we can in the biggest buses that are built, and our infrastructure is far, far behind.”

Other traffic-related issues include illegal off-road driving, which causes often-irreparable damage to the fragile Icelandic moss.

Eleanor Womack, BK ’18, spent summer 2016 in Iceland as a volunteer for Umhverfisstofnun, the Environmental Agency of Iceland.  Each summer, the organization hosts about 200 volunteers who build and maintain trails in national parks and tourist sites.

“A lot of the work involved raking or stamping out off-road tracks, because so much of the landscape is sand or moss,” Womack explained.

Icelandic moss, or Cetraria islandica, is actually a lichen common in arctic regions, especially on Iceland’s lava slopes. It grows slowly at less than one centimeter per year. Iceland’s official tourism site even includes a page warning visitors not to disturb the fragile moss.

2015 was a bad year for Icelandic moss. In September, rangers at Þingvellir National Park posted on Facebook that three backpackers “decided to insulate their tents by tearing up mosses and other fragile vegetation.” That same year, Justin Bieber received criticism for rolling down a hillside covered in Icelandic moss in his music video for “I’ll Show You.”

Even a tourist who wants to stop the car and walk off the road to take a picture can cause irreparable damage, Womack explained.

“A lot of the rangers say that a lot of tourists come to Iceland because it has been marketed as a wild, unexplored place, but there isn’t much emphasis on how important it is to preserve the really fragile landscape. So people come to Iceland thinking they can do whatever they want,” Womack said.

She also cited Iceland’s lack of a centralized park system, like the United States’ National Park System, as a reason for inconsistencies in warnings and tourist education. Although she believes that parks could work to make the rules clearer, tourists’ sense of freedom has already caused the most harm. “In a lot of ways, I feel like most of the irreversible damage has already been done in that Iceland has been marketed as a wild, untouched place for tourism,” Womack said.


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Icelandic government has yet to develop a coherent strategy for managing the tourism industry. Although politicians in Iceland debated requiring visitors to purchase a Nature Pass in order to visit certain natural landmarks in 2014, the law was never passed, and there are few to no restrictions on the number of tourists entering the country.

“For a country as small as Iceland, we can’t possibly think that we can take upwards of 1.7 million people per year without negative consequences,” said Barton. He suggested that the government might look to examples such as New Zealand and Switzerland.

Barton is one of many foreigners traveling to Iceland to work in the growing tourism industry. Montse Oliver, a Spanish environmental science major who now works as a sustainability project assistant for Hostelling International, has brought her expertise to Iceland to promote sustainability within the growing industry. Oliver agrees that “tourism is growing out of control right now.”

Whether or not a country’s tourism industry overall can be sustainable depends on how forward thinking the tour operators are, says David Evans, Professor of Geology and Geophysics at Yale.

Although Professor Evans has not yet traveled to Iceland, his studies frequently take him to locations of geological interest. Some are remote, while others are more tourist-friendly.

He compared Niagara Falls, surrounded by kitschy tourist shops and restaurants, to Iguazú Falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil. At Iguazú, he says, “By necessity, the buses stop and you have a lot of walking to do before you get to the falls.” He attributes part of the difference between the two destinations to the falls themselves: Niagara Falls is more predictable, while Iguazu’s wild torrents are impossible to contain. In addition, he says, there is an “awareness that if [tour operators] turn it into Niagara Falls, then people aren’t going to come.”


[dropcap]M[/dropcap]any popular destinations along Iceland’s Ring Road have the potential to become another Niagara Falls: beautiful, yet crowded and commercialized.

Gunnsteinsdottir hopes that Iceland can develop a long-term strategy for developing economically and environmentally sustainable tourism. The government, she says, should play a big role.

“I think the ideal would be a well-thought through, grounded, long-term vision for what tourism should look like,” she said. “And I think it has to be in accordance with preserving nature as well as with how people live their lives in Reykjavik and in different towns.”

Ultimately, she hopes that Icelanders and tourists will recognize the inherent value in Iceland’s natural beauty rather than capitalize on puffin shops, elf legends, and hákarl, or fermented shark, which is less commonly eaten in Iceland than many tourists would like to believe.

In her documentary Innsæi, Gunnsteinsdottir explores the relationship between the natural world and human intuition. “We have a psychological connection with nature; it’s not just a resource to utilize,” she said. “I would love it if tourism was also organized around and proud of Iceland’s creativity.”

She believes that people traveling to Iceland might gain a greater respect for nature. “We go to big cities and big towns and drive on concrete for hours,” she said. “Europe and North America are full of that. But this kind of crazy nature on this bubbling, volcanic island gives you another touch of nature, and I would like for people to take that in, respect it, and want to fight for nature more.”


Olivia Burton is a junior English major in Morse College. Contact her at