Iceland is a phenomenal travel destination that relies on its nature being intact to enjoy it to the fullest. From glaciers to untouched lava fields and an abundance of plant and animal life, Iceland’s gorgeous natural wonders can only thrive if humans minimize their impact. In order for visitors to continue to enjoy Iceland for generations to come, we all have a part to play. This is one reason that explains why green tourism is on the rise.
As we as a species become more aware of the impact travel has, we must adapt our methods. Travelling need not stop, but we need to strive for long-term sustainability if we want natural beauty to remain. Here are some ways you can be greener when traveling around Iceland.
What is Green Tourism?
Green tourism takes into account the impact that tourism has on natural systems, and works actively to reduce that impact. It’s essentially environmentally-friendly tourism that focuses on long-term sustainability, the reduction of carbon footprints, energy efficiency and renewable resources.
Green tourism includes the participation of both the consumer and the provider, as individuals and businesses have an equal responsibility to take part in and provide services that are environmentally friendly. This includes everything from the reduction of waste, to the use of renewable energy, the recycling of materials and the conservation of nature as a whole.
Green tourism is prioritized in Iceland, perhaps more than almost any other nation on the planet. Around 11% of the country is covered by glaciers, whose meltwater provides an important water source to humans and animals. Therefore, since Iceland has some of the cleanest air and water in the world, protecting this is essential.
How to be a Green Tourist in Iceland
Here are a few basic practices which can help to reduce your carbon footprint on an individual level.
Walk short distances instead of driving. Having a rental car will make a huge difference during your Iceland holiday because the country has few long-distance travel options. However, if you’ll be spending the day in a town or city, consider leaving your car at the hotel and walking. The benefits of this are threefold: you’ll get exercise, fresh air and better sightseeing views.
Hire an electric/hybrid vehicle. Cars Iceland offers the option of a hybrid vehicle rental to save on both petrol and produce fewer emissions. The country is now full of vehicle charging stations, run by the company On. This means you’ll never be too far from one and can feel secure in making it around the entirety of Iceland.
Eat locally-grown produce. Look for fruits and vegetables with an Iceland label; the country grows many fruits, vegetables and other produce items, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and mushrooms. Also, you can try menus from restaurants that advertise using Icelandic ingredients.
Stick to the paths. Iceland is covered with delicate green moss, which is an important part of the country’s ecosystem. Unfortunately, if stepped on, it is easily damaged and can take years to grow back. By sticking to the walking paths, you’ll automatically reduce your impact on the local flora.
Take part in eco-friendly activities. These days, awards are given to excursion and accommodation providers for adhering to certain environmental standards. Keep a lookout for these awards, such as the Nordic Swan Ecolabel, as they can be great guides for helping you decide on where to stay and what to do.
Green Tourism Experiences in Iceland
Here are some activities to try that minimize damage to the environment and power station energy use.
Multi-Day Hikes/Cycling Tours
Although Iceland's road trips are incredible, it’s just as wonderful to see the country on foot or by bike. There are hikes that take several days to complete, the most famous of which are the Laugavegur Trail and Fimmvörðuháls. These routes take adventurous trekkers into the highlands of Iceland, the uninhabited interior, which has very few roads leading into it.
Both trails provide only campsites or camping huts as accommodation, which have a minimum impact on their surroundings. Your source of water during the journey will be the country’s rivers, and you’ll need to bring all food with you. Fortunately, there are companies which offer shuttles to the start and end points of these hikes.
There are also cycling routes within Reykjavík and along the south coast which allow you to leave the urban areas behind. One such cycling path circles the peninsula on which the city is built, giving you a constant oceanic view. If you want to explore the small villages of the south coast, consider the South Coast Lighthouse Trail.
Note: These hikes and trails are best completed in the summer months, as winter conditions make them inaccessible.
Natural Hot Springs
Iceland contains a variety of hot springs in which no electricity is involved; nature does the heating. Humanity has simply guided the water into a pool-or-tub-like shape, allowing us to enjoy the geothermal power.
Because the water travels from so far underground, by the time it reaches the surface it is a comfortable temperature. It is always important, however, to check the temperature with your hand before stepping in. The temperature of such springs are known to fluctuate, and they’re often in remote areas where no one can help.
Three well-known springs which are easy to reach are:
Seljavallalaug on the south coast
Reykjadalur hot river, east of Reykjavík
Krosslaug, a tiny pool, north of Reykjavík.
Famous geothermal spas, such as Blue Lagoon and Sky Lagoon, receive their water from nearby geothermal power stations. Once the naturally-heated water has passed through the stations, it flows into these man-made pools, so that process is low-impact.
The spas are simply recycling the water that nature has already filled with algae, minerals and other wonders. It’s already heated to the ideal temperature, the only thing that’s left to do is guide the water to where people can bathe in it. And so, the geothermal spas are also very environmentally friendly.
Between late December and April, the country’s ski resorts get their lifts running for the snow lovers. Of course, the ski lifts use electricity, but skis and snowboards don’t. You’ll be having a thrilling time soaring down the mountain with no power but your own bodily energy. The cherry on top? At the mountain’s peak, you’ll be rewarded with incredible views, which don’t cost nature a thing to maintain.
Two of the most popular ski hills in Iceland are:
Bláfjöll, the resort around 40 minutes from Reykjavík
Hlíðarfjall, the resort only a short distance from Akureyri in the north.
You can check out our full skiing in Iceland guide here. If you don’t have your own gear, it can be rented from the buildings at the base of the mountains, along with lift passes that can be pre-booked on the websites of the ski hills.
Northern Lights Hunting
One of the most popular examples of green tourism in Iceland - the aurora is what inspires many to visit. Between October and April, there is a chance you can see the white, green and purple lights bring majestic life to Iceland’s sky. Though it’s never guaranteed they’ll appear whilst you’re here, there’s always a chance and this chance is what many people chase.
Northern lights viewing doesn’t require the emission of any carbon unless you’re driving to a viewing spot. You can either take your rental car in Iceland to somewhere away from city lights or join a coach tour. Once you’re there, all you have to do is wait and hope for an appearance. Nature is doing all the work; your only job is to sit back and enjoy the show.
If you don’t want to go too far from the city, Grótta lighthouse is only a short drive from downtown. This area is far enough away from artificial lights to experience a clear view of the sky. If you’re traveling the country, spend a night near Mývatn lake. The area around this lake is considered the “northern lights capital of Iceland”.
Practicing Green Tourism in Iceland
As you can see, the great thing about Iceland is that its best activities are already fairly eco-friendly. This means there aren’t too many adjustments to be made to play an active role in the green tourism movement. All that’s needed is an awareness of where you plant your feet, the food you put into your body and where you rest your head.
So, book your rental, pick some eco-friendly accommodation and go all in for green tourism in Iceland!