The image of pristine wilderness is one of Iceland’s main attractions, but this resource may be in jeopardy as the environment around some of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions and hiking areas is gradually deteriorating. A growing number of visitors in environmentally sensitive areas, and a lack of tourism regulations and strategic sustainable management, are contributing to vegetation and soil degradation and—in some cases—irreversible damage to natural formations.
We sat down with Dr. Rannveig Ólafsdóttir, associate professor in Tourism at the University of Iceland, who has been active in research on the impact of tourists on the environment, to discuss the issue.
DON’T STRAY OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Is unregulated pedestrian traffic in sensitive areas an issue that deserves concern?
If something is sensitive it definitely deserves concern. The Icelandic nature is by far the largest factor attracting tourists and, as such, the most valuable resource for the tourist industry.
What are the main consequences of off-trail hiking around popular tourist attractions?
It depends on the number of tourists hiking off-trail, and also on the type of environment such an impact takes place in. But even in the most sensitive areas, one or two people hiking off-trail should be okay. However, when we start to get mass tourism in unsuitable areas it may lead to deterioration of sensitive ecosystems and severe soil erosion. Our soil is particularly susceptible to erosion due to its high content of volcanic ash, which greatly reduces its resistance to erosion. Wind and water erosion are also very active processes here in Iceland once the vegetation cover has been damaged.
Is it likely that off-trail hiking, or unrestricted access to sensitive natural formations, could damage the environment to the point that it would adversely affect the quality of visitors’ experience?
Mass tourism in the country’s most sensitive areas could very easily cause environmental decline to the point that it would reduce the value of the areas for tourism. So far, damage has been met with increased infrastructure, such as construction of hiking paths, wooden stairs, viewing platforms, larger parking lots, service facilities and so forth. Such development changes the appearance of the landscape and thus also the tourists’ experience. That’s the dilemma of tourism. Too many visitors can furthermore create a negative perception for tourists.
DYNAMIC, DIVERSE, BREATHTAKING AND UNIQUE
Which areas are most sensitive, and which natural formations are most susceptible to permanent damage?
Moss-covered areas are particularly sensitive to trampling. They are also very uncommon outside of Iceland, and thus a valuable resource. In moss-covered areas, it sometimes takes only one step to make long-lasting damage. Areas covered with moss or moss heath on dry, unsteady soil on steep slopes are definitely among the most sensitive areas. There is, however, a lack of a holistic overview of the country’s ecological sensitivity, so I cannot answer this precisely. But right now I’m working on a project that aims to map the country’s ecological sensitivity based on a spatial analysis of available data on vegetation, soil and landscape characteristics. We aim to finish it this summer and I hope that managers and planners will find it useful for future planning regarding nature tourism here in Iceland.
The most sensitive natural formations are recent volcanic features, primarily pumice and slag craters that easily break down. Examples of this are Laki and the craters on Fimmvörðuháls. Many tourists also have a special desire to take a bit of Iceland with them back home.
Many popular tourist attractions in Iceland are located within the volcanic zone where the soil is particularly susceptible to erosion, as you pointed out. Do you think Icelandic landscapes are, in general, more sensitive to traffic compared to popular tourist destinations elsewhere in the world?
Icelandic landscapes are very dynamic, diverse, breathtaking, and unique. That is our resource. But yes, they are highly sensitive, especially to external physical impact such as trampling, off-road driving, etc. The most environmentally sensitive areas are definitely more susceptible to damage than many tourist destinations in other countries that promote similar tourism as here. However, the sensitivity is influenced by many factors and is therefore very different depending on where you find yourself in the country; there are also plenty of places in Iceland that can tolerate heavier traffic.
EXCEEDING THE CAPACITY
In tourism, carrying capacity is defined as the maximum number of visitors that can travel within an area without causing unacceptable damage to the environment or reducing the quality of visitors’ experience. In your opinion, have any tourist attractions exceeded their carrying capacity?
We still lack the data on Icelandic tourism to be able to answer this question. Accurate information on the number of tourists visiting the most popular tourist sites isn’t even available. Tourism in Iceland has been growing at an unprecedented rate during the past years. Despite the economic importance of tourism, studies focusing on the environmental impact of it have yet not received any financial support, at all.
Tourism carrying capacity is a complicated concept and depends on what type of tourism is considered suitable for each site. But yes, I would say that some of our natural tourist attractions have exceeded their carrying capacity.
BE AWARE AND ENJOY
Which strategies do you think would be most effective to minimize the impact of tourists and hikers on the environment?
In order to develop sustainable tourism, we urgently need holistic planning and management for tourism development in this country, based on qualified research on the resources. In my mind, the most effective and best strategy is tourism management in such a way that visitors will not realise that they are being managed. This can, for example, be done by controlling accessibility and by enhancing information and education for tourists and hikers.
Do you think off-trail hiking should be prohibited in certain areas?
Yes, I believe so. But such a decision has to be based on reliable data and a management plan pulled together by active collaboration of all stakeholders. Tourism management is a complex process, as there are many stakeholders involved with different and sometimes conflicting interests. Therefore, collaboration of all stakeholders and researchers is of vital importance when it comes to zoning an area for different activities.
Do you have any advice for environmentally concerned tourists visiting Iceland? How can they minimize their impact on the environment?
Be aware of the sensitivity of your environment, take care, and enjoy!