When I first scheduled an interview with Icelandic Mountain Guides (IMG), my intention was simply to direct the spotlight on one of the most active and innovative operators in the local travel and outdoor industries. Little did I expect that the conversation would insistently turn to dams, power plants, sustainable development and industrialisation, which could easily have resulted in another piece about environmental issues in Iceland.
And yet, in retrospective, this was perhaps an inevitable development, since pairing keen ecologic sensibility with the economic fruition of the country’s natural resources has been one of the cornerstones of IMG’s operation since the beginning. “It is pretty fulfilling when we can use our interest and concern for the surroundings as a way to promote our activities: quite surprisingly, a rigorous environmental policy and marketing go very well together,” says Hjörleifur Finnsson, one of the founders and current owners of the company, with a smile on his weathered face.
To my surprise, the history of IMG is a fairly long one, dating as far back as the 1990s: “We began our adventure fourteen years ago” he tells me as I hide my curiosity (and ignorance) behind a cup of coffee. “At first, we were just four guides. We already had ten years of experience in the field behind us. We thought that it would be interesting to offer more challenging activities than what was available on the market. We introduced new destinations, and put more focus on pure mountaineering.” Through the years, this has led to a highly diversified range of options, including multi-day backpacking tours, training courses (both for guides and ordinary clients), and mountaineering operations.
“The day-tours and our glacier walks are the fields where we expect to grow most in the near future. They are already becoming increasingly popular, not least thanks to mouth-to-mouth reputation” says Elín Sigurðardóttir, General Manager of IMG who is equally enthusiastic when it comes to talking of outdoors and guiding. Last April IMG hit the news for winning the first ever Pioneer Award, a recognition conferred by Icelandair on companies particularly deserving for their accomplishments in the tourism industry.
When I ask for further details on such a prestigious achievement, Hjörleifur explains that the praise was assigned precisely in virtue of their efforts to take people onto the country’s glaciers: “You see, there are already plenty of operators offering snowmobile tours on snow-covered glaciers. We have done something different, and started taking our guests to walk on glacial tongues, among caves and crevasses, making them touch and feel the ice not where it is clad in snow, but blue and hard – quite a unique experience. In the long term, our choice for innovation is paying off.
And considering all the glaciers and the endless opportunities we have here in Iceland, this is something that should be done more and more in the coming times.”
Tourists as an Industry
As a well-established and award-winning enterprise, the future might appear bright for a company like IMG. Iceland is still going through an unprecedented tourist boom, figures indicate a steady increase. This summer alone, I am told, IMG expect to offer services to nearly 10.000 people, with around 70 guides located in various places. And yet, the atmosphere becomes heavier and tenser as we touch on the subject of the times ahead. It is Elín who finally breaks the silence.
“What we are facing now is a generalized environmental issue, forcing us to daily confront ourselves with the world of politics. A number of new dams and geothermal power plants are scheduled to be erected within the next years. One, for example, will be in the Laki region, in the south of the country: an area that has historically been vital for us, as we have employed it for some of our best tours, as well as for educational purposes. Now we don’t know what will become of it. It is quite a serious situation.” Hjörleifur puts it down even more dramatically: “Yes, these are life-threatening policies for a company like ours, not to mention for tourism in Iceland as a whole, as the country’s image abroad will come out heavily spoilt because of all this.”
The conversation has suddenly become passionate and grave – much more so than I had anticipated, anyways. I cannot help feeling sympathetic, although some scepticism keeps bothering me underneath. The thought of seeing economic development in Iceland relying mostly on “green” and environmental-friendly tourism is clearly appealing. I wonder, however, whether in the long run the overcrowding of the island and an excessive commoditisation of its wildernesses would not equally lead to some kind of ecological havoc – the very outcome it was intended to avert.
Hjörleifur promptly stands to counter my doubts. “It is true that the tourist population has risen exponentially, up to 300.000 per year, which is more than the permanent inhabitants of the country, but we are still extremely far from saturation. Other resorts, such as the ones in Nepal or New Zealand, have been growing much more quickly than us… or take the mountainous region of Chamonix in France, which is hosting 700.000 visitors at any time of the year. What we need to do is actually to make Iceland a bit larger, to establish more names. We have so many pearls around us, so many magnificent areas still undiscovered by the main tourist flow. We should try to bring more and more people there, rather than to keep concentrating them in Landmannalaugar or the Golden Circle. If we do that, then we can still have sustainable growth in the tourism industry for many years to come.
Hjörleifur may well be right, but a political majority in the country still does not seem to agree, and remains inclined to rely on harnessing projects and forced industrialisation in order to maintain the high consumption standards that characterise Icelandic society. The debate is left open, the future uncertain. For the meantime, the guiding principle for the adventure- and outdoor-minded should be precaution: go out there and enjoy the wild and unscathed landscapes of Iceland, as long as they are as such.
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