Sustainable Tourism From the Perspective of the Traveler Posted on January 10th, 2024 by

The concept of international tourism is a unique and subjective experience that looks different for every individual. When Americans get the travel itch and decide to open up their computers and google possible destinations, it’s clear why many have decided to book their tickets with Icelandair. Iceland has quickly become one of the most popular tourist destinations for many worldwide due to the expansive landscapes and trendy tourist environments that were soon developed in response to the influx of travelers. As an American currently traveling in Iceland, I was interested in seeing how tourists interact with Iceland with a particular emphasis on Icelandic culture. Today I traveled the Golden Circle and visited some of Iceland’s most popular attractions in the hopes of observing the tourists in action. After visiting the popular spots and taking notes, it’s clear there is a disconnect between certain tourists and Icelandic culture. The Golden Circle features a stop in Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park which is considered the heartland of Iceland. The park holds a lot of historical significance to the people of Iceland which is how it earned its spot as a UNESCO heritage site. According to Þingvellir: Commodifying the “Heart of Iceland ” by Kristín Loftsdóttir and Katrín Anna Lund the land was witness to early Icelandic parliament and settlement. While not all stops on the Golden Circle are within the Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, I noticed a persisting lack of consideration for the well-being of the land and the significance it holds for Icelanders. I started my journey at the Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park visitor center and walked through the interactive exhibition offered by the front desk. The exhibit featured the necessary context a tourist would require to connect the cultural significance of the landscapes in and near the park. It was obvious after initial impressions that very few tourists opted to spend money to see the exhibition and were more fascinated by the gift shops featuring Iceland’s favorite souvenirs. I asked the front desk how many tourists end up visiting the exhibition and he gave me the numbers. Approximately 1700 people visited the National Park the previous day, of those visitors, only 15 decided to visit the exhibition. It makes you wonder, how much revenue did the gift shop make that day? In addition to this, one of my classmates overheard a tourist ask the same worker “What do we even see here, and what are we even expected to do”. The clerk patiently responded, “The tourists come here to see the sights, but for us Icelanders it’s where our government was built”. Within the park, my classmates noticed many tourists quickly walking to each of the lookouts, taking photos, and leaving once the task was completed. Similar behavior was observed in the various other stops along the Golden Circle, most notably the Gullfoss waterfall. Here, tourists were seen walking outside the trail boundaries to avoid the sheets of ice and trampling the plant life surrounding the boundaries. Worst of all, tourists were passing the boundaries by the waterfalls and standing on the rigid cliff sides in an attempt to get a better picture. From the perspective of a student trying to study sustainable tourism, the sight was all I needed to see to draw my conclusions for the day. But to the people of Iceland, it was pure disrespect. Had they known the importance these areas held for Icelanders, I would like to think more care and consideration would be taken when visiting these stops.

What’s challenging about this is the historical significance of the land is harder to see than the beautiful sights. So in many of these instances, I understand travelers might not be aware of the culture and see nothing wrong with their actions. I understand I had a unique perspective going into these tourist destinations and more context than the average traveler. However, it still begs the question. How much responsibility does the tourist have in educating themselves on the cultural considerations of their destination? I believe it is just as much the tourist’s responsibility to educate themselves before their departure as it is for a country to develop a sustainable model to mediate tourism. Iceland is in the unique position of having approximately 31% of its economy based on tourism according to Iceland and the Trials of 21st Century Tourism by Andrew Sheivachman. In light of this, many businesses were looking to benefit from the tourist economy in ways that have also aided in blurring the lines. Things like advertising the landscape as the sole offering of Iceland and exaggerating Icelandic histories in ways that are not entirely accurate could have influenced some of the behavior I saw today. I think while a lot of the conversation is centered around changing the system in Iceland to a more sustainable model there is a need for tourists to also do their part by researching their destinations and taking the time to educate themselves when diving into another culture. While it might not be the sole answer to maintaining tourist sustainability, it will most definitely help the situation and hopefully prevent you from making some of the same mistakes seen today. International tourism is challenging, there are a lot of things to consider when interacting with a culture unlike your own. So consider the responsibilities you may have if you travel internationally and the part you could play in upholding sustainability in tourist destinations. My name is Tyler Elliott and I look forward to connecting with you later in the month. Thank you for taking the time to read along and follow the J-Term trip “Otherworldly” Iceland: Culture, Environment, and Tourism in a Globalized Age.


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