Over recent years, Iceland has become a hotspot for tourism; chances are, you know at least one person who’s taken cheap flights there to see the Northern Lights, bathe in geothermal lagoons, or admire its stunning landscapes. Following an economic downturn in 2008, low prices in Iceland and cheap international flights through Reykjavik put this mysterious northern island on the map as a must-see destination. Books, magazines, and the web have latched onto the hype with endless viral content about why Iceland is the hottest place to visit right now.
In 2017, over 2 million tourists flocked to the country, far outnumbering its population of just over 300 thousand. As these numbers grow and as you potentially consider a visit, it’s imperative to first think about the impact tourism is having on Iceland’s economy, people, and nature.
The demand for centrally located visitor accommodation has expanded the city outward, driven up the cost of living for local residents, and funneled throngs of tourists into areas Icelanders call home. While foreign visitors bring capital to Iceland’s economy and the demand for tourism has created tons of new jobs, it has also taken its toll on much of the country’s wildlife and population in ways many tend to overlook. Not to be a buzz-kill, here are some general suggestions for having a great time in Iceland as a conscious and responsible traveler!
1. Watch what you eat
It’s great to try local cuisine, and Icelandic delicacies are certainly unique. But before you indulge on meat and seafood specialties, consider their origins and whether nearby ecosystems can sustainably satiate the appetites of 2 million visitors per year. Many restaurants serve smoked puffin and whale meat, but these are not actually common in traditional Icelandic cuisine: mainly tourists eat them despite minimal local demand. Fermented shark (Hákarl) is indeed an Icelandic specialty, but its popularity in tourism has led to overfishing and ecosystem stress; most people who try it end up squirming with disgust, and the rest of the meat goes to waste.
Consider opting for vegetarian meals, and rest easy knowing you haven’t eaten an animal whose population is under stress from the demand created by tourism. Restaurants all over Reykjavik, like Gló and Prikið serve vegetarian and even vegan options. If you’re traveling through other areas, most hostels and guest-houses offer kitchen facilities where you can cook for yourself (pasta and lentils are both easy options for quick DIY dinners while traveling).
2. Watch where you go
At many of Iceland’s natural attractions, walking paths have been created for visitors. This is done to protect the nearby flora (including delicate mosses integral to the native ecology) from being disturbed by millions of feet every year. As tempting as it may be to ditch the trail for that awesome photo op, please please please please stay on the path. Icelandic tourism is doing its best to preserve its nature, but we all have our own part to play. If you see other visitors neglecting this rule, you can kindly ask them to remain on the designated walking areas; it’s usually written on signs throughout most sights, so it’s not like you’re trying to ruin their fun.
Camping in unauthorized areas is also a big no-no, as it can disturb nearby nature and impose on local residents. Stick to designated campsites, and pay the fees that are integral to maintaining the camping facilities for your use.
3. Respect the rules of the road
Iceland’s roads traverse awe-inspiring landscapes extend endlessly straight in some remote areas of the island. You may be driving alone on some parts, and it may be tempting to stop for photo-ops or pick up the speed. Both are dangerous and not allowed, for the safety of yourself and other travelers. Driving off-road can devastate wildlife next to the highway, and speeding can put your vehicle at risk of being toppled by strong winds. Stick to the speed limit and stop only in designated stopping areas.
4. Clean up after yourself
This goes without saying, but is an important reminder nonetheless. Whether you’re walking city streets, thru-hiking long trails, or using public facilities, always leave them as you found them. Dispose of waste and recycling in designated containers, wash your dishes immediately after cooking in a hostel kitchen, and maybe go the extra mile and help pick up trash others may have accidentally left behind. Set a good example for other tourists who may not have considered their impacts, and of course, be friendly to those you encounter on your journey.
5. Do your research
If you’re considering booking excursions through a touring company, spend some time looking into their mission and values when it comes to tourism. Companies like Hidden Iceland offer sustainability-conscious travel experiences, with small group tours that prioritize respect for nature and a pledge to offset their carbon emissions. If you’re planning to drive around the country yourself, opt for fuel-efficient vehicles and consider carpooling with friends. When searching for accommodations, look for eco-certifications from conservation associations like Blue Flag or Green Globe. Keep in mind, however, that green labels don’t exempt you from responsibilities to conserve your water and energy use anywhere you go.
To take full advantage of the Northern summer’s endless daylight, Marissa will squeeze every last minute of hiking, running, splashing, and climbing into her outdoor adventures through Iceland and Scandinavia. Bananas and coffee are all she needs to fuel up for marathon-treks through rugged mountains, thundering waterfalls, jagged cliffs, and rocky fjords, though trying to keep her two sets of clothing clean in the process might be one of the greatest challenges this world has ever known. Marissa studied engineering and environmental policy, with lifelong goals of saving the world’s glaciers, oceans, forests, and wildlife from the perils of anthropogenic climate change. When she isn’t busy reading about solar panels and cursing modern consumerism, Marissa enjoys rowing on the Charles River, stopping to pet every dog she ever sees, running the occasional marathon, and cooking plant-based feasts for forty at the Dudley Co-op/commune. Her favorite legume is decisively the garbanzo, for its incredible versatility and protein-packed punch.