Iceland's Nature Pass Dilemma

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Anyone who has visited Iceland knows that the main attraction is its beautiful raw and unfettered natural wonders. We took our colleagues a couple of years ago and visited all the key sites along the south coast of Iceland - as far east as Jökulsárlón - you can see that report [here]. Iceland is very much in vogue at the moment with several major recent Hollywood blockbusters - Prometheus, Oblivion, Thor 2, Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Noah and Game of Thrones all filmed on location in various parts of this nature wonderland (see below).


This year however there has been a significant change in the Icelandic tourism landscape, as the landowners at 3 key sites have started to charge for access. 2 of the sites are part of the ’Golden Circle’ tour near the capital - dormant volcanic crater Kerið and the spouting hot springs of Geysir, the third is Dettifoss waterfall in the north-east. Enshrined within Iceland’s constitution is the unassailable right of the Icelandic People to freely wander across every part of its landscape. Moreover, the main Geysir area is in fact a national park, albeit that it sits within a landowner’s larger territory. The feeling is that what’s happening at Geysir for sure is not entirely ’legal’.


There have been all manner of debates since the ticketing operations appeared - landowners are claiming that increased tourism has meant more money needs to be spent in maintaining the environment - at Kerið and Dettifoss there are no facilities really to speak of, certainly nothing approaching sanitation, and the latter is accessed via a very coarse gravel road which is impassable at certain times of the year. In fact the vast majority of natural beauty spots in Iceland have little more than a guide-rope and the most rudimentary of pathways. Some of the more popular ones have proper facilities - a cafeteria of some sort, giftshop and proper toilet facilities - most though have next to nothing.


It’s kind of ironic that the most inhospitable environment is charging the most - Dettifoss at 800Kr (roughly £4), Kerið is 350Kr (£1.75) and Geysir is 600Kr (£3). If every landowner in Iceland decides to get in on this action, it will soon become ridiculous. The government of Iceland is instead recommending a Nature Pass scheme, which is still to be fully formalised - in terms of pricing, where it can be bought, and how funds should be allocated etc.


For my mind, both these schemes will have a significant negative impact on tourism in Iceland. Erecting proper facilities at all key sites will simply ruin the appeal of the raw nature, while sticking up fences and ticket booths everywhere will kill it - you would question even 350Kr to see Kerið - I would simply skip it as there’s much more and much better to be seen for free. Tourism is fast becoming the main revenue generator for Iceland, and surely the industry should be able to maintain key sites from all the revenues generated overall - tourism is going through a boom and there have never been more hotels in planning than right now. Any overt ’tax’ will have a negative impact, so whatever happens needs to be introduced delicately. Most of the proponents of charging and Nature Passes, have not really thought through the enforcement / policing part - are you going to have to have armies of uniformed staff at every location to check that visitors are in possession of a nature pass? Any kind of increased presence of personnel on site or other physical impediment will put a serious blot on the landscape and will impact negatively on the nature of Iceland both for overseas visitors and the local population. A big part of Iceland is its informal / free-to-wander atmosphere - any kind of system of overt charging or nature pass will result in unnecessary queues and will wholly change the character of what is currently majorly appealing.


I’m not disputing that some funds need to be allocated for maintenance and upkeep of tourist sites, but the methods proposed so far are likely to seriously impact on what is currently a highly flourishing industry. Some suspect elements of the Icelandic tourism industry are looking to ’fleece’ tourists somewhat unscrupulously - at the airport for instance some Icelandic confectionery is being sold in English packaging for more than twice the price of the same natively packaged confectionery - both are available side-by-side and largely contain identical goods from the same factory. Other elements are looking to dissuade the more budget-minded traveller and appeal to the seriously wealthy - which is somewhat at odds with the very nature of Icelandic society itself. The highest class of hotel currently in Iceland is 4* - there are some very nice 4* hotels, but Iceland does not have a culture of luxury or marble palaces like you can find in the major millionaire resorts - Iceland’s appeal has always been in its everyman, all-access approach.


As someone who deeply cares about Iceland, I am hoping that good sense will eventually prevail, and that Iceland’s nature can be safe-guarded without unnecessary and unsightly impediments put in place. As anyone who works in tourism knows, tourists can be very fickle consumers, and this year’s must-go resort can quickly quickly drop off the hotlist. It’s in everyone’s interest that this is handled sensitively and thoughtfully ...


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