Following the rapid growth of tourists in Iceland, signs of damage to the country’s fragile and vulnerable ecosystem are starting to show. At the same time, surveys reveal that nature is our main tourist attraction with more than 80% of foreign visitors citing it as their main reason for visiting.
Building up infrastructure at popular tourist spots is indeed urgent to combat the increasing pressure of trampling tourists. However, no holistic scientific analysis has been conducted to determine the scope of damage control and build-up needed.
Furthermore, building up infrastructure in some of Iceland’s more isolated and untouched areas would create visual pollution that completely changes the natural experience. In those areas, restricting access through visitor quotas may be the only way of protection. Although this is as important as protecting heavily frequented spots, no emphasis has been put on the matter.
There is, therefore, a real need to move from fragmented policymaking to a more coherent and holistic approach that would take the aforementioned points into account.
The Nature Pass Is A Bad Idea
There are several reasons why the government’s proposed Nature Pass is a bad idea.
Firstly, it contradicts the ancient right of people in Iceland to travel through uncultivated land (as does single site charging, for that matter). These rights are secured in the Nature Conservation Law If areas are under severe stress due to tourism, for instance, the law allows access to be restricted. This is very important of course, but the restriction should not discriminate against some people the way the Nature Pass and single site charging does.
Secondly, and this may be more pertinent to Icelanders than others, by charging people directly for access to nature, I fear that people’s relationship with nature may change in unforeseeable ways. Icelanders’
relationship to nature could become more business-oriented rather than being based on love and respect.
Thirdly, if Icelanders have to pay directly for access to nature, the Nature Pass may lead to a divide between certain groups of people and tourism itself. Is that what the tourist sector wants?
Lastly, the Nature Pass requires comprehensive, not to mention expensive, administrative infrastructure, including marketing and sales and surveillance systems.
So What Can Be Done?
Increasing taxation on tourism needs to be looked into more, particularly with regard to protecting the main asset of tourism: nature itself. Landvernd, the Icelandic Environment Association, and four not-for-profit outdoors organisations have suggested that alternatives to the Nature Pass be developed further before a decision is made on which path to take. The proposals include a variety of ideas: a moderate entry fee to the country that people pay once a year, an increase in tax on accommodation, a tax on cruise ships that dock in Iceland, a moderate tax on rental cars, etc.
None of these alternate ideas deny anyone the right to access nature. Moreover, some of them are already in place; a new comprehensive
administrative body would not be needed to implement them.
In the end, though, nothing—not even the Nature Pass—will stop individual landowners from charging for single site access. Other means
of stopping that are therefore necessary.