According to official estimates, the number of foreign tourists in Iceland will top the one million mark for the first time in history by the end of the year. Which means it will have more than tripled over the course of last decade: in 2003, some 300,000 foreigners visited Iceland.
But while the growing number of foreign visitors has helped fuel economic growth, the hordes of visitors pose problems of their own. Virtually every popular tourist destination in Iceland is under serious stress, as irreparable damage is being done by trampling tourists.
The problem is that neither the Icelandic tourism industry nor the authorities have responded in any meaningful way to the unprecedented growth in foreign visitors. As the number of tourists grows, so does the need for decent walking paths, more and better parking spots, and basic public facilities by popular spots—along with instructions and staff to both ensure visitors’ safety and ensure that they don’t cause damage to fragile natural formations through ignorance or inexperience.
But all of that costs money.
Who should pay?
The left-wing government, which left office in 2013, had proposed a small tax on every night stayed at hotels and hostels, but the plan was opposed by some industry lobbyists, and the incoming right-wing government scuttled the surcharge.
Now, the minister of Industry and Commerce, Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir, member of the conservative Independence Party, has revealed how the government plans to solve the problem. On November 28, the cabinet approved her plan to have everyone who wishes to enjoy Icelandic nature purchase a special permit, a “nature pass,” which will set you back 1,500 ISK (or €10) for unfettered three-year access to Icelandic nature.
Everyone who wants to travel around the island, enjoying the sights and taking in the natural beauty, is supposed to purchase such a pass. Icelanders, as well as tourists. In essence it is a tax on enjoying natural beauty.
A laughable tax
The response to the proposed “nature pass” has been uniformly negative. Environmentalists, nature lovers and bloggers all denounced the plans, and Icelanders took to social media to declare it the stupidest idea yet to surface from our current government, vowing they would never pay a tax, no matter how small, to travel in their own country or to enjoy its beauty.
As Stefán Ólafsson, professor at the University of Iceland and a prolific blogger, noted, the enforcement would be an administrative nightmare, requiring a small army of “pass inspectors” milling around the countryside, checking people’s papers. The plan, he concluded, was simply “laughable.”
In his weekly Fréttablaðið newspaper column, novelist Guðmundur Andri Thorsson criticized the passport as a tax on people’s feelings and experience of nature, while Left-Green chair Katrín Jakobsdóttir pointed out it essentially eliminated people’s right to travel freely in their own country—a right dating back to the Viking commonwealth and the legal code of Grágás.
A plan nobody likes…
The Icelandic Tourist Industry Association has also rejected the idea, pointing out that the pass is inefficient, that its implementation will be both difficult and costly, and that it will no doubt have a significantly negative effect on tourists’ experience of Iceland.
Instead, the association encourages the government to adopt the plan proposed by the previous government: a one-Euro fee, levied on every night stayed at a hotel or hostel, would be simpler to administer and would be far less disruptive to visitors.
… because it is truly terrible!
The idea of purchasing a permit to enjoy the beauty of nature and the majesty of the view is so breathtakingly stupid it is difficult to figure out how the Minister of Industry and Innovation came up with it. How would it be implemented?
Obviously, it would require an army of “inspectors,” as Stefán Ólafsson points out, but how, in practice, are they going to enforce the law? Will they perform spot-checks on tourists around the country? And how will they determine who is a tourist enjoying the view and who is a local resident just travelling to and from work?
The worst kind of tax imaginable
And how will they deal with suspected violators? Presumably, the low price of the pass will entice foreigners to pay, just to avoid a potential hassle. But we can expect large numbers of locals will refuse to pay, on principle. Will the passport-wardens be deputized, so they can arrest people looking at lava fields without the required permit? And what kind of appeals process can we expect to see? A special panorama-court, where people can try and prove they weren’t actually enjoying nature that much, and thus need pay no tax?
There is simply no way the tax can be implemented in a manner which will be both cost-efficient and seen by Icelanders as just and fair. To foreign visitors, its enforcement will most likely appear either arbitrary or annoying.