Is Sustainable Tourism even possible when tourism grows 6 times the population? Posted on January 12th, 2024 by

Hey everyone!

My name is Audrey, and this is your first time visiting the “Otherworldly Iceland: Culture, Environment and Tourism blog welcome. For those who have been reading daily, welcome back, I have been fortunate to be one of the 15 students on this fantastic J-Term trip to learn and critique tourism in Iceland. As previously mentioned by other students on this trip we have been observing Iceland’s management strategies trying to find ways to best manage the economic benefits of international tourism while preserving the natural and cultural factors that grab visitors’ attention. Today, I want to discuss a question I have been thinking about on this trip as to whether or not tourism in Iceland is sustainable, specifically relating to the environment.

Sustainability can be hard to define as people and organizations have different definitions, in addition, the term sustainability is complex and has many layers to it. In my opinion, a simple definition of sustainability can be defined as resources that are maintained for long periods. In this case, the resource is tourists. Iceland currently has lots of tourists visiting Iceland. As of 2023 2.2 million tourists had visited Iceland and in 2018 when tourism was at an ultimate high it was at 2.3 million tourists. 

The tourist board member who came and talked to us predicted that tourism would get up to 3 million in the next ten years. With this high influx of people traveling to the country, this raises a lot of issues such as how will Iceland accommodate people, how will Icelanders preserve the land, the toll it takes on the infrastructure such as roads, and or the lack of infrastructure there within the environment. The term over-tourism (high amounts of tourists at a time) has popped up multiple times as Iceland experiences these bursts of people during the high season. We have read how this over-tourism can cause damage to the land. We have read in the article From Boiling to Frozen? The Rise and Fall of International Tourism to Iceland in the Era written by Anna Dóra Sæþórsdóttir, C. Michael Hall, and Margrét Wendt. This informed readers about over-tourism, and it stated, “The issues of over-tourism and carrying capacity are closely related to some of the most fundamental questions in environmental management, that is, to what extent humans can utilize the environment sustainably without destroying its most valuable aspects”. If more and more tourists come at a time, it brings a challenge to Iceland on how they can sustainably manage tourists without destroying and/or contaminating the land that has been here for quite some time. 

Unintended path created by many other tourists before us.

Personally, on this trip I have not seen over-tourism as Iceland’s peak month is in July, however, I have seen large tour groups and how that can have an impact on one’s experience and the land. When it gets busy in areas it can be hard to see the beautiful scenic views, so people try to make their own spots off the path. If several other tourists do the same thing this damages the mosses and vegetation that take several years to grow. Even though Justin Bieber was not a responsible tourist back in 2015, Bieber filmed the music video for his song which showed him running on protected moss in the Fjaðrárgljúfur gorge of South Iceland. I have also been in areas where people do not pick up their trash including cigarette butts near the Gullfoss and over time those cigarette butts could negatively impact the mineral-rich water by polluting the water. 


Footprints created by tourists outside of the safety/guide rope.

So how can tourism be more sustainable for the Environment?

Within the past few days on the trip, we have observed, read, and discussed sustainable tourism. We had three different speakers the other day talk about their experience of tourism. We had a speaker from the Icelandic Tourist Board, someone from the University of Reykjavik, the City of Reykjavik, and an independent contractor from Liberty Travel Iceland. Each person had a unique experience with tourism, in addition, they all had different answers to how tourism can be sustainable. The Icelandic tourist board member mentioned that sustainable tourism is possible if there is a broader approach to the sustainable framework and that more policies should be implemented. The scholar from the university mentioned how infrastructure needed to be improved and the housing crisis (where homes are sitting empty waiting for tourists to use when many other locals are trying to buy homes, but they are expensive) needs to be resolved. In addition, the scholar mentioned giving back to the locals from big tour companies that use their space and cause destruction. Then the independent contractor mentioned how the busing system was terrible and how Iceland needs to implement more electric vehicles. In addition, our group on the trip discussed fees and taxes to help create revenue to help improve infrastructure and land efforts.

However, there were some contradicting thoughts as well. The board member thought implementing policies was the way to help find a solution to be sustainable, whereas the scholar did not believe this was necessarily going to happen because the government is divided and is constantly shifting, so nothing really gets done. I have also noticed from listening and reading that the society of Iceland sees these problems of creating a sustainable environment for these natural sites as a futuristic problem and not a new problem. This to society is not a problem because their revenue from tourism is doing well and is supplying jobs. As of 2010 according to the Boiling to Frozen? crisis. There has been a 60% increase in employment in the tourism industry, but a decrease in other service industries such as agriculture and fishing. The question is how long will this boom in tourism last and if it starts to decline, then will the economy crash again? How can tourism be sustainable in a way that does not destroy beautiful places? One other thought is having fees such as parking lot fees, passes, or a tourism tax to help maintain the land and or infrastructure. I see this as a good option to help with funding ways to help maintain paths, but these funds are ultimately up to the owner of the place so they may use the money in other ways. In addition, I see tourists in large crowds still finding ways unintentionally to damage the land.

So, I think there needs to be a way for tourists to inform them on how to be responsible tourists, in addition to finding ways where tourists could spread across areas of Iceland instead of gravitating towards all the popular areas at once. Responsible tourism requires a collective, with parties cooperatively taking responsibility for making tourism more sustainable. Sustainable tourism is not a simple topic as there are many layers and aspects to look at and I look forward to learning more about different aspects and ways that tourism can potentially be sustainable. 

Thanks for taking the time to read this and I hope you find this insightful!


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