Earlier this month, international press reported that tourists allegedly carved “SEND NUDES” into moss-covered hills in the south of Iceland. Who wrote it, and where exactly do we send these nudes? It appears as though the Instagram generation will do anything for a photo opportunity but while a meme may last a moment, vandalism is causing lasting damage to Iceland’s ancient landscape. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
No harm done? Think again. Árni Tryggvason is a native Icelander and mountain tour guide. As the number of tourists has increased, so have the number of problems. “Vandalism is increasing dramatically. People are spoiling nature, thinking it will repair in a few weeks. That’s just not true. Moss damage as seen in the ‘SEND NUDES’ example could take up to seventy years to repair,” Árni explains.
And it’s not just moss. “There’s off-roading, building stone cairns, graffiti and even defection.”
Pretty in pink
Two years ago, Chilean artist Marco Evaristti dumped a ton of red dye into the Strokkur geyser, causing a pink eruption in the name of art. While the geyser now runs clear, scar tissue runs deep — this was one of many deliberate attempts to distort nature for aesthetic impact. People are pissed.
Árni, like many Icelanders, feels that we “don’t have any right to reform nature,” and that we should “let it be as it is”. But is all damage international? Árni tells me much of it is down to ignorance. “People don’t know what they are doing. They don’t know how vulnerable the landscape is. They don’t know how to act.”
Ignorance is bliss
Árni is a vigilante, and has decided to take the law of the land into his own hands. Rather than blaming tourists, he is trying to help.
“People see huge stone cairns (historic relics used to mark the road before the age of GPS) at the side of the road and decide they want to have a go building one themselves. I approached an American woman stacking stones near the concert hall. I spoke to her and she said she wanted something to remember Iceland by, so I explained the history. I just don’t understand it. Whenever I come across tourist-built cairns, I kick them down. So do the park rangers.”
Despite their best efforts, hundreds of tourist-built cairns continue to pop up across the country. Perhaps these cairns are being used to mark where tourists have taken a dump? Yep, that’s right:, reports of defecation are skyrocketing.
I shit you not, the Icelandic media is ablaze with locals accusing barbaric tourists of soiling their land. A few weeks ago, we reported that an Icelander caught a tourist pooping next to a kindergarten. A few months back, someone shit in a cemetery. As poops pop up, so do the signs: — “Bannað að gera þarfir sínar”, – or “no human waste” to you and I.
“The issue with defecation is down to our infrastructure. We need more toilets. Yes, it’s a horrible to see a shit in the road, but what else are people meant to do? The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration have just put in fifteen toilets around the country, which I think is great,” Árni explains.
Us vs. them
Are tourists purely to blame? No. “There are Facebook groups dedicated to bashing tourists. Locals blame them for everything. It’s important to remember that even Icelanders are doing the same thing but for some reason when an local does it, it’s accepted.”
Árni cares about his country, and monitors activity on Facebook for love of the land. Even he acknowledges that fake news ensues on social media. “There are a lot of complains, but I know for a fact that people are shamelessly lying about tourists. Three weeks ago, a woman reported that tourists had spoilt the land near her farm. I checked the aerial view on Google — she was lying. I wrote her a note calling her out and she got super angry. She even blocked me on Facebook.”
Education is key, and although it’s blindingly obvious to you and I, more resources are needed to show what is, and is not acceptable.
“Generations ago, Icelanders thought vandalism was ok. We have woken up. We now have much more respect for nature and have seen the impact of our actions. Tourists can do the same, so it’s my mission to try educate more people about nature protection,” Árni adds. Now stay woke.
Árni Tryggvason, mountain tour guide here in Iceland