Villagers Make Glacier Tourism Sustainable in Iceland

Hiking at the Vatnajökull National Park (Source: Adriana Serra/Flickr).

Across the world, tourism surrounding glaciers and national parks has become widespread and essential to the development of sustainable economic strategies. But how can the sustainability of tourism be assured in years to come? A recent study from a team of Icelandic scientists published in the Journal of Rural and Community Development argues for the value of incorporating input from local communities into the process of developing sustainable tourism, particularly in rural, sparsely populated regions of Europe.

In the northern periphery (NP) of Europe, which refers to all the Nordic countries and the autonomous North Atlantic Faroe and Åland islands, tourism has become essential to the development of new economic paths. But according to this study, these regions face many challenges based on the fact that these areas are “as a rule, geographically peripheral, vast territories of especially fragile ecosystems, with limited infrastructure, low and declining population densities and few economically feasible industries.” As a result, “these factors contribute to making tourism an increasingly important industry in the NP, from an economic and social point of view.”

A significant concern is that as low populated areas become increasingly popular as tourist destinations, these sparse periphery regions are expected to experience increased environmental, economic, and social impacts in the area.

Lead scientist Kristín Rut Kristjánsdóttir, a doctoral candidate at the University of Iceland, shared with GlacierHub how holistic assessments are necessary for addressing the complicated implications surrounding glaciers tourism. “Glacier landscape and climate entail fragile vegetation covers, unpredictable weather and regular damage to roads, and other physical infrastructure of natural causes. Therefore, safety issues for tourism in these areas also need extra attention,” Kristjánsdóttir said. “Taken together, all these factors make many economic solutions to peoples livelihoods in the northern periphery complicated.” 

Map of Iceland and Vatnajökull National Park (Source: jaisril/Flickr).

Iceland has been experiencing an exponential increase in foreign visitors over the past few years, for example. In 2016, the Icelandic Tourist Board estimated almost 1.8 million visitors that year, about five times the population of the country. With a vast majority of tourists citing the main reason for visiting Iceland to be to enjoy the natural landscape, the Icelandic government has long noted the need to concentrate on sustainable tourist development that preserves the nation’s unique, vulnerable ecosystems, as GlacierHub reported earlier this month. But even with Icelandic authorities’ focus on sustainable tourism development, “planning and infrastructure that benefits the local tourism development, as well as the local tourism stakeholders, are often not prioritized,” according to the study.

Interviews with the local communities in and surrounding Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland, were integral to this research. This park was established in 2008 and is the second largest national park in Europe with a surface area of nearly 14,000 square kilometers that covers a seventh of the entire territory of Iceland. Over half of this area is comprised of the massive Vatnajökull glacier, the largest ice cap in Iceland and third largest in Europe, covering some of the world’s most active volcanoes.

Due to the stunning landscape, the glacier and national park has become one of the most popular tourist sites in Iceland but is also increasingly vulnerable to physical damage with increased tourism disturbing the glacier’s ecological integrity. According to the study, “rapid growth in visitor numbers together with ecosystems and communities that are sensitive to tourism impact call for active monitoring and continuation of assessment methods.”

Johannes Theodorus Welling, another doctoral candidate at the University of Iceland, explained the antipodal relationship between glaciers and tourism. “On one side glaciers make climate change tangible by showing its recession and shrinkage, which visitors can follow almost on a daily basis… Paradoxically, the same visitor emits substantial amounts of greenhouse gases during their travel,” he told GlacierHub. This notion is particularly true for tourists traveling thousands of miles to reach Iceland, often in the summer months.

Glaciers at the Vatnajökull National Park (Source: Emily Hongyi/Flickr).

The aim of this study was to develop and assess systemic sustainability indicators for glacier tourism. Kristjánsdóttir and her colleagues interviewed 48 tourism stakeholders and concluded 18 sustainability indicators for Vatnajökull National Park from analyzing themes across the interviews. The top five most influential indicators and the major driving forces for local tourism development in the region included destination attractiveness, economic and societal seasonality, social carrying capacity, and the local economy.

But of all of these sustainable indicators, the attractiveness of the region ranked the highest. Stated in the study, “attractiveness is both the most critical and the most vulnerable indicator in the system […] as it is closely interconnected with other indicators and very sensitive to any change within the system.” But the changing climate heightens the region’s vulnerability and uncertainty in maintaining the ecological integrity that attracts tourists and that locals promote.

“The main take away from my study is, in my opinion, that it sheds light to the complexity that needs to be considered in addressing sustainability, especially when applying it to tourism in areas of the northern periphery,” Kristjánsdóttir told GlacierHub. Developing sustainable glacier tourism could, as Welling explained to GlacierHub, use the dynamics of the glacier as a tool to educate its visitors to show that climate change is real and have enormous consequences for landscape, hydrology, local communities, and tourism. But ensuring local participation is key to understanding the effects of tourism in sparsely populated northern periphery regions often home to glaciers. Balancing the cultivation of economic development without harming the ecological stability is complicated, but more integrated reports, such as this study, ensure a holistic consideration of how to develop sustainable tourism in Europe.