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Published December 8, 2014

Debates on Monday #13

Debates on Monday #13

Nature. The ultimate free lunch or an anomaly in today’s world, most easily fixed by charging for access?

The Debates on Monday

This debate really just got started at the end of last week, as ministers agreed to propose “the law on a comprehensive plan for the development of infrastructure for tourists for the protection of nature and culture-historical remains”.

The law’s text is pretty opaque. Colloquially, it is known as the law on a “nature pass”. It sets in motion a twelve year plan. It is actually hard to find a word about payments in there, let alone a “nature pass” except in article nine, where it says that places funded or partly funded by the State Treasury will not be allowed to charge for access. Which does seem to imply that those others will.

No reason to rely on uncertain hints or implications though. Members of Alþingi know legalese. Government members, as well as those chunks of the opposition that seem to be about to awaken from their somewhat extended collective post-governmental slumber, agree about the actual content of the law: people will be charged for access to Icelandic nature, inhabitants of the country as well as its visitors.

If the proposal becomes law, an access pass will be needed, it seems, in places defined by the relevant ministry, as “touristic”, whether publicly or privately owned. According to Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir, Minister of Industry and Commerce, the plan is to charge 2000 ISK for four days’ access, 3000 ISK for a month, and 5000 ISK for five years’ access to those sites. The progressively decreasing amount is probably supposed to facilitate locals to enjoy their surroundings, while getting the real bucks from visitors – without technically discriminating between the two groups, which would go against all sorts of principles and agreements.

The above prices were reported by Vísir. Somewhat ambiguously, either the journalist or the Minister then explained that the access pass system will be based on “similar systems in other countries”, as implemented “in public transportation, for example in buses and trains”. That is, police or other authorized parties will randomly check travelers and see if they have bought a pass. There will even be an app to buy passes. Just like when you take that metro or underground or U-bahn.

Only, of course, it’s not an U-bahn. It’s mountains and all that. Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Chair of the Left-Green Party and former Minister of Education, wrote an article published in Fréttablaðið last Tuesday, titled: “Intended To Limit Freedom of Movement?” Katrín mentioned the valuable image of Iceland’s nature as “untouched”, which, under construction since decades ago, might suffer from the proposed policing. Furthermore, however, she points out that the common right to travel through any plot of land, regardless of ownership, has been secured in Icelandic law since the validation of Jónsbók in 1281. This freedom of movement will, she wrote, have to be abolished to make room for the new law. “Most nations,” she says, “have chosen to collect such payments through taxation of transportation tickets or hotel nights”.

Among themselves, ministers have agreed on the proposal. Alþingi, however, has yet to vote on it, for it to become law. The government’s parties hold the majority at Alþingi, making yes a likely, if not certain, outcome of any vote on a government proposal. The good news is, of course, that the less people feel like any of that nature belongs to them, the less likely they are to stand in the way of the government when push comes to shove regarding the utilization of said nature.

Doctors remain on strike. Patients are dying, they say. Which must be a relief to members of government, as they do their utmost to keep a tight budget. As the old joke goes: What’s cheaper than an alienated people? A dead patient. In totally unrelated news: Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson realized that he needed one more PR-manager to his team, which now consists of three such, as well as two assistants and two economic advisors. This was reported by Kjarninn, which also revealed that the budget allocated to Ministers and their teams has grown by 49% in a year, from 242 million to 340 million ISK. Talking your way out of austerity deaths certainly comes cheaper than running a hospital. Former Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was not the only one to comment: “Sure, there’s enough money when it comes to the government itself …” – but she would say that, wouldn’t she?

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