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Photo: Photo courtesy of Promote Iceland

Iceland's push for more visitors has been a huge success. Now, the country is grappling with the environmental impacts.

Glacial crags tower over yellow and orange sulfur-streaked landscapes. Icy streams vault off rocky ledges into striking waterfalls. Untamed grasslands meet inky black-sand beaches, pummeled for eons by relentless surf. It’s hard to find landscapes like these, because once discovered by marketing teams and tourism guides, they are often quickly overrun.

Just look at Iceland.

Iceland stands on the threshold of transforming one of the world’s pristine and captivating landscapes into Mother Nature’s equivalent of Disney World. While Europeans have long frequented the island for adventure, Iceland has only recently become a global tourism hotspot. In 2010, the country made a purposeful push to expand its tourism market and attract more visitors. Now, tourism has overtaken fishing as the largest foreign revenue-generating industry. According to Promote Iceland, the country’s destination marketing organization, Iceland has experienced a 300 percent increase in visitors since 2010, and as many as 2.3 million people are expected to make the trip in 2017. It’s a remarkable success story, but one that has come with unforeseen problems and new costs.

“Iceland has unique vulnerable areas due to its volcanic nature and northern oceanic location,” said Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, CEO of Landvernd, the country’s leading nongovernmental conservation organization. Geothermal fields, geysers, moss-covered lava fields, all are easily damaged by tourists wandering off the poorly constructed—or non-existent—path, he added.

Due to the explosion of tourism, many parts of the island still lack the infrastructure needed to protect newly busy attractions.

“The Seljalandsfoss waterfall is a popular destination,” Guðbrandsson said. “But with limited governmental protections and sparse infrastructure, the heavy foot traffic is increasing erosion rates.”

As the Iceland Monitor reported this year, the owners of the waterfall recently starting charging a parking fee to improve safety measures and amenities.

“The area is becoming completely trashed,” said waterfall chairman Kristján Ólafsson. “It’s really awful to see how badly the area is suffering. We don’t have any money to improve access, so we have to do it in the cheapest way possible.”

The waterfall isn’t setup to handle crowds. There are no established railings and boundaries, and even when visitors stick to the trail it’s often slick and muddy. Earlier this year, a 14-year-old boy fell nearly 50 feet while walking on the rudimentary path.

As Guðbrandsson sees it, this issue is partially due to a lack of government funding and conservation education on how to appropriately preserve natural areas. However, the government has begun to address the influx of visitors and their effect on the environment. In 2015 it partnered with the Icelandic Travel Industry Association to develop a five-year Road Map for Tourism, a “long-term tourism strategy with an emphasis on sustainable development.”

“We are marketing off-season tourism and prioritizing the wider regional destinations to stimulate growth in rural areas of Iceland,” said Promote Iceland Manager Karen Möller Sívertsen.

Tourists have flocked to Iceland in part to enjoy the country's natural beauty, such as this glacial lagoon, but there are now concerns about protecting the areas seeing the most visitors. Photo by Austin Langlois

Iceland isn’t the only place using tourism dispersal as a conservation strategy. Colorado was the first state to partner with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, and the state has made sustainable tourism a marketing focus.

“We created the Colorado Field Guide that intentionally guides travelers to visit less-traveled destinations,” said Colorado Tourism Office Director Cathy Ritter. “It highlights restaurants, lodging, free activities and information on how tourists can reduce their environmental impact and contribute to protecting natural resources through ‘voluntourism.’”

Tourism can have unintended consequences, Ritter said, and when visitors wander off trail, that sends the signal to others that it is acceptable, causing erosion and wildlife interruption. “It doesn’t hurt anyone to stay on the trail,” she added.

However, Ritter believes the overall benefit of tourism outweighs the environmental risk. “Tourism is important so people can learn the value of undeveloped places. If people don’t value something, they have no investment in protecting it.”

Still, sometimes the urge to protect can be misguided. Yellowstone National Park welcomes more than 4 million visitors a year and has seen the effects of human intervention. Last year, the park made national news when visitors put a newborn bison calf in the back of their SUV because they thought it was cold. The calf was rejected by its herd and park officials euthanized the calf, spurring outcry from the public condemning the tourists, the park or both.

Ken Voorhis, chief operations and education officer for the park’s official nonprofit partner, Yellowstone Forever, is no stranger to the difficult balance between protecting and enjoying nature.

Like Ritter, Voorhis also believes connecting people to the parks will lead them to act in the land’s best interests, whether through voting, advocacy or hands-on work. Voorhis saw this first hand during a U.S. National Parks exchange trip to Russia.

“Many of their now-preserved areas (known as Zapvodniks) had been the tsars’ hunting grounds. Over time, these became preserved lands where only a few researchers entered each year,” he said. “The lack of public knowledge made it difficult to continue protections after privatization.”

Tourism and conservation often coexist tenuously. When people travel, they learn to value natural spaces, but often simultaneously contribute to harming them. While Iceland struggles to mitigate the environmental impact of tourism, Guðbrandsson remains optimistic.

“Tourism has to live in harmony with nature,” he says. “By establishing more protected areas and expanding protections for existing attractions, we can hopefully preserve Iceland’s natural beauty.”