The controversial “Nature Pass” threatens to become a reality
With the annual turnover of overseas visitors set to break the one million mark for the first time this year, Icelandic politicians, companies and citizens have long been considering how best to cope with growing pains connected to the country’s tourism explosion.
The problem is simple: despite bringing their plentiful currency, thus giving the national economy a much-needed shot in the arm, the sheer number of holidaymakers necessitates improvements to Iceland’s infrastructure. Some tourism hot-spots need basic facilities such as toilets, lest people start free-range pooping en masse; many sites of outstanding natural beauty are lacking signage and pathways to prevent soil erosion from footfall, amongst other general conservation work.
Indeed, development and maintenance projects to the amount of two billion ISK already await funding from the State’s Tourism Development Fund, Minister of Industry and Innovation Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir told state broadcaster RÚV in an interview last week. Discussing her ministry’s plans to raise the necessary funds, Ragnheiður—who is in charge of tourism, amongst other things—revealed some initial details of a proposal the government has already approved and will soon be submitted to Alþingi for a vote.
After lengthy consideration, Ragnheiður’s ministry has decided that the mandatory purchase of a 1,500 ISK “Nature Pass” for anyone who seeks to enjoy Icelandic nature is the way forward. The pass will reportedly allow unfettered access to State and municipal lands for a period of three years (at which point a renewal is necessary), and will be required of both Icelandic citizens and tourists alike. The Minister expressed her hopes that private landowners would also participate in the programme and cease collecting fees on an individual basis, however their participation will be on a strictly voluntary basis.
When asked how the Nature Pass law would be enforced, Ragnheiður explained that it would mostly be through random inspection at certain checkpoints. Those who fail to show a nature pass when prompted will have to pay fines up to 15,000 ISK.
Newspaper DV estimates that an annual yield of 800,000 tourists (which was the case in 2013) would net the State 1.2 billion ISK, which the Minister says will go directly towards the Tourism Development Fund.
In the interview, Ragnheiður stressed that the nature pass’s implementation would be kept as effortless and easy as possible, adding that plans were afoot to employ the latest technologies to aid in the process. “For instance, we are in discussion with the tax office about whether we can somehow allow Icelanders to check a box on their tax return,” she told RÚV, “thereby purchasing the Nature Pass. It will all be done through the internet, and in as simple a manner as possible.” She also noted that citizens’ passes would be linked to their National Identity Numbers, so locals will apparently not have to carry them around wherever they go.
Whose land is it?
The Nature Pass idea has met with severe criticism from several corners including, perhaps surprisingly, from those operating in the tourism sector (with the Icelandic Travel Industry Association voicing severe opposition). The questions range from the practical (such as whether a driver pulling over in a layby should be allowed to look at a nearby mountain) to the philosophical (should nature really be considered a theme park-style attraction?) to the legal (don’t the people own the land anyway?). Conservationists, artists, environmentally minded citizens and public officials alike are voicing concerns, begging the question of whether the government undertook proper consultation about the proposal.
“That’s a question for the minister to answer really,” says Left-Green head, former Minister of Education and current MP Katrín Jakobsdóttir, “but I gather that stakeholders were assembled during the formation of the plan. However, they don’t seem to have had much influence, which is why we’re seeing opposition from the tourism sector, as well as environmental and nature preservation organisations and outdoors associations.”
“The Icelandic Travel Industry Association have said they’d prefer a tax on accommodation instead,” she continues, referring to the ITIA’s idea of a €1-per-night nature tax on hotel rooms. “Honestly, it’s difficult to see why the government prefers to develop their own special way of collecting funds for tourism infrastructure, instead of raising the accommodation tax.
The idea of inspectors undermines Iceland as a place where one can connect with nature without the intervention of other human beings.”
This fundamental principle of freedom of movement, and the right to remain undisturbed in Iceland’s countryside without the unwelcome attention of pass inspectors, lies at the heart of much of the criticism. Even those who support charging visitors for infrastructure and upkeep harbour objections to the nature pass model, such as Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson of national environmental GMO Landvernd.
“We support charging tourists a moderate fee to support nature conservation in tourist locations,” says Guðmundur. “We do not, however, support the nature pass as it has been introduced by the minister. We believe that it violates the ancient right of people to visit nature, and that it could potentially damage people’s experience of Iceland because of the surveillance required to enforce the law. There are much less intrusive means that could be employed, such as an increase to the existing accommodation tax, and via the tax system in general.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by lauded Icelandic author (and noted environmentalist) Andri Snær Magnason. Taken together, the three’s matching opinions suggest a common-sense consensus about the proposal amongst people from various parts of Icelandic culture.
“While I think it’s a good idea to finance the protection of Icelandic nature,” says Andri, “it could be done in a number of other ways. There is something fundamentally wrong and Orwellian in the concept of the nature pass, like admitting your total alienation—that nature is an amusement like Disneyland—leading to the claustrophobic and horrible idea of somebody being excluded from nature. The idea that this country is not mine, but has been turned into a commodity—and how this government is at the same time threatening so many pristine areas with stupid development schemes. The government is expecting to raise 10 million dollars from the pass, when they just gave a new factory that amount in tax relief!”
With such passionate responses coming from such a wide range of citizens, it seems the Nature Pass proposal has become a lightning rod issue that gets to the heart of how Icelanders feel about the relationships between citizens, the state, and the land itself.
“Perhaps the most fundamental question here is about the commodification of natural phenomena that underlies this proposal,” concludes Katrín. “Do we really want natural phenomena such as Geysir, Gullfoss and Dettifoss to be counted as commodities like any others? I don’t think we do.”
At the time of writing, the ministry had not responded to our invitation to comment.
With additional reporting by Haukur S. Magnússon