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Sustainable Iceland: How to Travel Responsibly

Tourism is a fast-growing industry in Iceland, as people all over the world make the trek up North to marvel at the natural beauty the country has on offer. However, regardless of where you come from, it’s crucial to respect Iceland’s fragile nature while traveling. To ensure a sustainable Iceland, it’s down to both visitors and locals to guarantee that the unique landscapes that make the country so special, stay special.

As tourist numbers have risen in recent years, it has quickly became clear that though visitors support the idea of conserving the country’s often delicate natural environment, many have little idea how to do so in a practical way.

If you’re one of those people that is keen on learning how to have a more sustainable Icelandic road trip, here we walk you through some insightful ways to do so.

Paper plane with leaves representing the idea of a sustainable Iceland type of tourism

Steps for a more sustainable trip in Iceland

Support the ideals of the Icelandic Pledge

In order to educate visitors about Iceland's tourism problems, its official tourism site, Visit Iceland, came up with a novel solution. In 2017, they launched ‘The Icelandic Pledge’ which was an oath of types that could be taken by interested tourists. It featured simple steps that acted as reminders to help people travel in a more responsible fashion.

Those who signed up for the Icelandic Pledge received a certificate that could be shared on social media to encourage others to do the same. The pledge was designed to remind travelers of the ways in which they could see the country fully, but with a sustainable twist. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was a huge success!

Seek out ecotourism providers

Ecotourism principles underpin many of the most popular touristic activities in Iceland. Mountain biking, dog sledding and horse riding can be reasonably low impact, as can be snorkeling, river rafting and diving.

But if you plan to have a stroll somewhere beautiful to simply sit and take in your surroundings, this could have an even lower carbon footprint.

Stop CO2 sign

Additionally, activities that you might not associate with ecotourism, such as taking a boat trip to go whale watching, can be more environmentally friendly than you might think.

For example, up in Húsavík, tour operator North Sailing offers carbon-neutral whale watching trips. By using electrical boats which glide silently through the water, any and all disturbances to the cetaceans are minimized and you can enjoy watching them peacefully in their natural state.

Hike mindfully

Much of the attraction of hiking lies in appreciating unspoiled landscapes. In Iceland this is even more apparent as the infrastructure is often minimal. Here, where there are paths, steps and other amenities, their construction frequently uses materials which complement nature. This allows them to sit in harmony with the landscape and perhaps even enhance their surroundings.

When venturing out for a hike in Iceland, stick to marked trails and respect fenced-off areas in order for damaged vegetation to repair itself. Keep the old adage ‘take only photos and leave only footprints’ in the back of your mind while exploring.

It’s important to remove any garbage and dispose of it carefully – even if there are bins, it’s better that you don’t leave your trash blowing around in the wind. Here you have some great hiking routes in Iceland to practice these sustainable trekking tips!

Park thoughtfully

Off-roading is illegal in Iceland, but it hasn’t always been so.

Designated campsite signposted to prevent damage to the nature

Not long ago, for instance, to reach the Sólheimasandur plane wreck, private vehicles could follow a rough track. It led from the Ring Road out to the DC3 which famously crashed onto the black sand back in 1973. However, many cars got lost, damaged fragile vegetation or were bogged down in the soft ground.

Therefore, it makes sense that to visit the Sólheimasandur crash site today, you need to park up and walk. In fact, if you’re keen to venture off-road anywhere in Iceland, you’ll need to do the same.

The best practice is to leave your car in a designated spot where you aren’t going to do any harm to the fragile landscape. Be sure to choose a reputable provider if you plan to book excursions such as super jeep tours.

Camp only in designated places

Wild camping is popular – and legal – in some parts of Europe, but when the environment is as fragile as Iceland’s, it can be extremely damaging.

According to the Icelandic government, around 25% of land in the country is formally protected. At present, there are officially three national parks, one in the works, and a further 120 or so that are protected.

Beyond Iceland’s three national parks, there are many places of exceptional beauty. However, since 2015, it’s no longer permitted to camp in Iceland outside designated sites without the written permission of the landowner. Luckily, there are plenty of official sites where you can put up a tent without having to resort to breaking the law.

Answer the call of nature with respect

It’s almost impossible to believe that some tourists would need reminding of something so basic, but unfortunately in the past there have been incidents of visitors using the Icelandic countryside as a toilet.

Leaving human waste in such a manner is not only disgusting, but it also does serious damage to vegetation.

No poo Icelandic road sign

Because of the cold temperatures and harsh weather conditions, Icelandic vegetation can be very vulnerable. The most fragile, such as the moss you see growing on lava fields, can take decades to grow. That’s why just one thoughtless act can have the most long-term consequences.

Fortunately, there are WCs all over the country, in cafés, petrol stations and visitor centers, so there’s no reason to be caught short. Just remember to carry small change as some require you to pay before use.

Ditch single-use plastic

As tourists, it’s all too easy for us to rely on single-use plastic. From disposable cutlery to travel-sized toiletries, we often contribute to a throwaway society without thinking of the impact.

But if we consider the wide-ranging consequences that affect everything from resource consumption to wildlife and their habitats, it will help us to think twice before buying so many plastic products.

Fortunately, making a change is more straightforward than you may think. These are some things you can do to reduce your reliance on single-use plastic when you’re traveling:

  • Buy a decent refillable bottle so that you can make the most of Iceland’s pure tap water.

  • Pack a set of reusable cutlery in your luggage.

  • Swap your usual brand of wet wipes for biodegradable ones.

  • If you’re self-catering, opt for food that has minimal plastic packaging when you shop.

  • Actively seek out hotels that use refillable soap, shower gel and shampoo dispensers.

Recycle symbol created by plastic bottles for a more sustainable tourism in Iceland

Look for the Vakinn logo

One final way to make sure you travel responsibly in Iceland is to actively seek out businesses that are Vakinn certified. This initiative from the Icelandic Tourist Board partners with those businesses that show a heightened awareness of environmental sustainability, both in the short-term and the long-term.

To qualify for this accreditation, businesses need to prove that they meet a number of criteria about processes such as waste management, carbon emissions and sustainable use of resources. Tour operators, geothermal spas, hotels and transport providers are just a few examples of the program’s participants

Raising awareness about ecotourism and sustainability

To sum up,traveling in Iceland sustainably is all about finding a balance between conserving the country’s unique and beautiful landscape while ensuring that it can still be utilized as a resource for visitors.

We need to accept that in a country as breathtaking as Iceland, there’s no doubt that travelers will wish to explore – and their positive impact on the nation’s economy makes this welcome.

With that in mind, raising awareness about ecotourism is an absolute must to ensure that both fragile and delicate environments are protected. Luckily, with careful management, it’s possible to achieve both.

So, get pumped up for your personal chance to show off your sustainability knowledge the next time you rent a car to drive around Iceland. When individuals play their own part, everyone wins.



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