An other-worldly volcanic island at the juncture of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans in Northern Europe, Iceland is packed with poetic legends, cinematic landscapes and geothermal lagoons, the home of the awe-inspiring Northern Lights and fascinating creatures such as the Arctic Fox where an industrious and warmhearted people are passionately committed to their country and sustainable tourism within it.
Perhaps because of such interest and beauty, Iceland has become an enormously popular place to visit in a short space of time, and while this has been brilliant for many local businesses, it has also put strain on infrastructure, nature and society. This is most visible in the southwestern part of the country, largely because of the location of Keflavik Airport, the only international airport in Iceland.
Far from being phased by the situation, however, Icelanders are rising to the challenge and looking intensively at ways to manage the pressures associated with the number of people arriving. In the name of sustainable travel, they are starting to disperse visitors away from hot spots, and trying hard to better manage their scenic areas to protect them from trampling and future visitors and generations.
Karen Möller Sívertsen, manager of Visit Iceland, told itmustbeNOW Magazine: ‘We want to better inform visitors before and during their stay about Iceland’s fragile nature, how to behave responsibly as a traveller, local culture and Icelandic peculiarities’. Visitors can now use Iceland Academy, an online education tool with video classes that address everything from safe driving to local hot tub etiquette, while The Icelandic Pledge is an online agreement devised by global tourism initiative Inspired By Iceland that invites travellers to sign up to be a responsible tourist when visiting the country. The eight point pledge encourages tourists to experience Iceland the way that Icelanders do by agreeing to a set of guidelines such as, ‘when exploring new places, leave them as they are’, take photos ‘without dying for them’, to ‘never venture’ off-road (a direct call response to the total ban on off-road driving in Iceland) and to adhere to allocated campsites when ‘sleeping under the stars’.
300 Icelandic tourism companies have also agreed on a country-wide declaration on responsible tourism with some clear and simple sustainable measures to help tourism thrive in harmony with society and the environment, while a Route Development Fund has been established to encourage direct international flights to airports in North and East Iceland and take the strain off the major hub. Other initiatives have succeeded in encouraging tourists to travel off-season – mainly in the Winter months – and so reduce pressure on seasonal hot spots, particularly in and around the capital of Reykjavik and South Iceland.
EarthCheck has been working closely with 14 municipalities within Iceland to help address all these issues under its Sustainable Destinations programme. Vice President of Sales at EarthCheck André Russ, who has just returned from a field trip to the country, told itmustbeNOW Magazine: ‘We are enormously proud of the work both destinations have undertaken to achieve EarthCheck Certification. The Snæfellsnes Peninsula and Westfjords in particular are true pioneers when it comes to a community approach to the environment and are filled with passionate locals who are welcoming and really want to make a difference.’
Snaefellsnes is a 90 km long Peninsula in West Iceland that’s home to just under 4000 residents and it’s a wondrous place to visit, with a long mountain range that ends in the glacier which served as a main focus in Jules Verne’s novel ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’. About 80% of the businesses in the area are related to tourism, and the area has seen the largest year-on-year increase in the number of foreign travellers on record. To protect its future, the Snæfellsnes community took part in a massively successful ‘Reusable Snæfellsnes’ initiative in 2017 to stop using plastic and disposable containers and bags and make a conscious effort to choose reusable options instead, while a Nordic Beach Cleanup Day saw locals, schools, NGOs and other organisations get together for a beach clean-up all over the coastline which is now set to become an annual event.
Westfjords contains a third of Iceland’s coastline and is home to millions of seabirds which use its high cliffs to nest. Places like Vigur island are the base for alarmingly rare stocks of breeding puffins, while the Hornstrandir nature reserve protects the Artic Fox from hunting so it’s a great place to spot this cute, shy animal and the whole region is full of gyrfalcons, sea eagles, snowy owls and other gorgeous breeds too. To help safeguard this natural wonderland, nine municipalities of Westfjords are now working on a Green Step programme to green their workspaces and organise their daily practices in a more environmentally friendly way. The criteria becomes more challenging with every step, and the community intend to bring the initiatives into local households too.