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In Focus: The Cost of Iceland’s Nature

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In Focus: The Cost of Iceland’s Nature

Selfie under Snæfellsjökull glacier.

Photo: Páll Stefánsson.

Iceland became an incredibly popular tourist attraction in a very short period of time, and it became increasingly clear that its natural treasures weren't prepared for such a large number of people. Nature never had a price tag before, and politicians were quickly aware of the need to change that. It wasn’t a matter of if, but how. The Icelandic nation faces an ongoing discussion on the best way to protect delicate nature and natural phenomena as well as how to raise funds to finance the project.

The entire idea of charging an entrance fee to travel around the country is controversial, as Icelanders have been used to going about nature without ever having to pay anything for it.

Statistics show that the Icelandic tourism boom truly began after the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption, which revitalized the nation’s economy from the devastating banking crisis it suffered in 2008. That year, the number of tourists exceeded the nation’s population of 330 thousand, with a whopping 488.622 tourists. This year, approximately 2.5 million tourists are expected to visit the country.

The Icelandic government, between the years 2013-16, attempted to implement a so-called Nature Pass, which would have been mandatory for anyone wishing to visit a natural treasure in the country. Its purpose was to make the state treasury money which would be used to maintain tourist attractions, as well as to protect Icelandic nature and to ensure the safety of tourists. The price of a single pass would have been 1.500 krónas ($14) for anyone 18 and older, and it was to be valid for three years. The proposed Nature Pass bill was passed by the government but was vehemently opposed by the nation and the tourist industry. Alþingi never approved of it, so it never came to fruition.

Another option is to simply charge an entrance fee to the most popular tourist spots in order to fund upkeep. A fee collection has already been implemented by landowners in spots such as Kerið and Víðgelmir in Hallmundarhraun.

Entrance fees range from 400 krónas ($3.75) for access to places such as the volcanic crater Kerið. In 2014, landowners announced the fee collection, although the Environmental Agency declared it illegal. Landowners, however, managed to keep up the fee, which is used to fund all upkeep of the area, as well as putting up toilet facilities.

The most expensive entrance fee, with a price tag of 6.500 ($60.96) is the cave of Víðgelmir, in Fljótstunga. Víðgelmir is a delicate and historic cave, and the high price is partly intended to limit the number of visitors. The price tag has sparked controversy, primarily among Icelanders who were used to hiking up to the cave without having to pay a single króna.

Fee collection by private parties is heavily disputed and many Icelanders consider it a right to be able to explore Iceland’s nature without impediment or indeed, an entrance fee. In some cases, landowners’ right to restrict passage on their land has been contested. Fee collection by the Geysir geothermal area, one of the most popular tourist attraction in Iceland, was ruled against by District Courts, and later the Supreme Court, as the lands were partly owned by the state. The latest case of attempted fee collection has yet to be resolved, as today, the Environmental Agency and local police stopped fee collection in Hraunfoss at Borgarfjörður, West Iceland. The Environmental Agency has declared the fee collection illegal because the area is protected. Landowners had put up a sign in the driveway, as well as placing a staff that charged 1.500 krónas ($14) for parked cars and up to 6000 krónas ($56) for buses.

Although taxation on the tourism industry has brought in revenue, it hasn’t been spent properly on infrastructures around tourist hot spots. The outgoing government had proposed an increase in value-added tax for the entire tourism industry, although it was highly opposed by industry officials. With a new government set to take its place next month, it is currently unclear whether those plans will change. The fact remains that nature can’t fund itself. Whatever solution will be found, Icelanders seem to be in agreement that something ought to be done sooner rather than later.

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