Tourism in Iceland

Iceland, a small country with just shy of 350,000 inhabitants, had less than 500,000 visitors in 2010. This number has grown rapidly year by year. In 2019, around 2.3 million travelers visited Iceland and this number is expected to grow further. Iceland’s capital remains among the 50 most popular international destinations and one of the hottest cold-weather destinations in the world.

Is Iceland Crowded?

Due to the sudden growth of tourism, Iceland has been mentioned in the context of overtourism. By Icelandic standards, some of the popular destinations are, indeed, much more frequently visited than they were a decade ago. Compared to other popular travel destinations, however, Iceland is far from crowded. Here are some examples:

  • Tenerife, a famed holiday island in the Canary Islands is 50 times smaller than Iceland and receives 60% more tourists (2802 visitors/sq km)
  • while Hawaii is 3.6 times smaller than Iceland and receives 77% more tourists (350 visitors/sq km).
  • France is 6.3 times larger than Iceland and receives 89.4 million foreign visitors per year, targeting 100 million for 2020 (155 visitors/sq km).
  • Norway is 3.7 times larger than Iceland and has 11.3 million foreign tourists per year, which makes for 29 visitors/sq km.

In Iceland, we receive about 2.3 million visitors a year, (22 tourists/sq km). If we were to exclude the glaciers, there would be 25 visitors/sq km, which is still less crowded than Norway. It’s also important to remember that these are yearly figures, so those 25 visitors per square kilometer (~58 visitors/sq mi) are scattered throughout the year.

What Do Icelanders Think About Tourism Growth?

According to a yearly survey carried out by the Iceland Tourist Board, the attitude of Icelanders toward the growth of tourism has been generally and largely positive. They appreciate the new job and service opportunities, especially in rural areas. The majority of locals agree that tourism has had a positive impact on society and has even increased their own interest in Icelandic nature.

There’s no point in denying, however, that tourism has both a positive and negative impact on destinations. There was one survey question to which most Icelanders expressed a negative attitude or worry. In 2018, three of every four locals agreed that the pressure that tourism exerts on Icelandic nature is too high.

The Negative Effects of Tourism in Iceland

According to the same survey, 92.4% of travelers to Iceland decided to visit the country because of its nature or particular natural features. Nature tourism is quite unique in the industry as it’s a fragile product that needs protection, even though it’s a product that isn’t owned by anyone but shared among many.

Iceland doesn’t have a national park service that can enforce strict regulations on what one may or may not do. There’s no limit to the number of visitors and there are no admission fees to access the natural attraction sites.

As tourist traffic increases, there are more and more people that don’t behave in a safe, responsible, and environmentally-friendly manner at these locations, putting themselves and others in physical danger and degrading the environment.

There are more than 500 tour operators in Iceland that bring tourists to these places. A large number of visitors also travel without local guides. When people aren’t careful, these natural sites become degraded, as do the quality of service and visitor experience.

Arctic Adventures’ Responsibility to Make Iceland’s Tourism More Sustainable

As Iceland’s largest tour operator, we recognize our responsibility and are committed to operating more sustainably and promoting responsible travel. We do this not only among our guests but also among everyone who comes across our websites and social media pages, encouraging travelers to behave respectfully, non-invasively, and to make meaningful decisions.

Why Sustainable Tourism is in Our Own Interest

As a successful market player, we’re aware that our potential guests are well-informed and demand quality service. When choosing from the wide array of Icelandic tour operators, our potential guests always prefer the more responsible service provider. We expect the number of eco-conscious travelers to grow rapidly in the future.

Arctic Adventures carried out a customer survey to find out about attitudes towards the environment, climate change, and tourism’s effects on Iceland. The results showed that not only are the majority of tourists concerned about the environment, but their worries grow after seeing Iceland firsthand.

To satisfy our potential customers’ needs and ease their concerns about the negative impact of their travels, it’s essential for us to maintain high-quality service and work towards sustainable operations. This not only brings great rewards for our business but also offers benefits to the environment, the communities living in the destinations, and, of course, to our customers. A more eco-friendly holiday is always a better holiday.

Iceland’s first environmentalist was Sigríður Tómasdóttir (1874 – 1957), whose activism helped preserve Gullfoss waterfalls, protecting it from industrialization.

We Preserve Our Playground

The roots of our company lie in our passion for Icelandic nature. It provides the adventure itself, as the environment is our beloved playground. There are only a few inhabited places in the world where the natural environment remains as untouched as it is in Iceland. This is something we take great pride in and are focused on preserving.

The Principles of Our Sustainability Policy

Ensuring that future generations can experience the same things that we can experience today requires careful planning. During everyday operations, it can be easy to lose track of our long-term goals.

A good sustainability policy is like a business plan; it controls the processes from the lowest level of operation up to the systematic regulations, starting small but thinking big. We’re confident that the target that we’ve set for ourselves is realistic, achievable, and efficient.

Commitment

We’re committed to protecting the natural environment, wildlife, and natural resources when developing and managing our tourism activities.

Forward-Thinking

Thinking about the long-term, we’re always looking for new and better ways to make our operations more sustainable and aren’t afraid to swim against the current to do so.

Adaption

We’re constantly monitoring, re-focusing, re-thinking, and adapting to changes – both environmentally and culturally – to ensure the balance between limits and usage.

Respect

To show respect to our guests, we aim to maintain a high standard and provide travelers with quality service and authentic tourist experiences that celebrate and conserve Icelandic nature, heritage, and culture. We respect and support our locals by creating socio-economic benefits for their communities.

Cooperation

We work closely with relevant Icelandic associations, participating in research and undertaking voluntary work with local communities and landowners in the areas where tours are operated. We make regular donations to organizations and support their efforts in various ways.

Practice and Promote a Leave No Trace Attitude

“Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.”

So goes the shortened principle that we follow and promote. Every member of the Arctic Adventures family is committed to sharing their love for Icelandic nature and promoting environmental awareness in each of our guests.

Practice

Our tour guides are the most dedicated nature lovers in our company. It was true passion that led them to choose Icelandic nature as their daily workplace and they’re naturally committed to protecting it. Our guides are trained to share their outstanding knowledge with our guests in an entertaining way and to encourage them to behave responsibly so that they leave no trace in Iceland’s fragile environment.

Promote

Sustainable tourism isn’t exclusively dependent on tour operators. It requires the determination of travelers as well. But tour operators play a great role in educating and engaging visitors to behave more cautiously and become more responsible tourists.

We put great effort into marketing and promoting our principles to a broad audience. We not only promote them to our guests but also to the hundreds of thousands of readers that visit our websites and social media channels searching for valuable information about Iceland. We truly believe that our words have a great impact.

Practical Steps We Are Taking to Become More Sustainable

Our plan to become more sustainable is future-oriented but also based on real, everyday actions. Just like in any business, great achievements in environmental protection can be accomplished by making an effort every single day. Here are some of the practical steps we are taking to support our sustainability policy.

To Reduce Our Emissions

  • In 2019, we extended our vehicle fleet with three 100% electric, zero-emission cars, lowering our emissions by 50.8 tons of CO2 per year.
  • We aim to purchase more eco-friendly vehicles in the future.
  • We’ve created strict regulations to lessen Arctic Adventures’ idling times. We’ve also installed trackers in our vehicles that send alerts when they’re idling or regularly leaving the engine on. This regulation resulted in a 40% drop in idling times.
  • We avoid long-distance procurement when purchasing products and equipment.
  • We make it possible for our customers to use public transport systems instead of minibusses to get to specific hiking areas where our guided hikes are operated such as Skógar and Þórsmörk, the trailheads of the Laugavegur Trail.
  • We’ve made a deal with Strætó (the official Icelandic public transport company) so that our team members can purchase yearly passes at a better rate to encourage the use of public transport.
  • We’ve made showers available at the office to encourage people to walk, run, or bike to work and back.

To Reduce Our Waste

  • We carry out what we carry in. Our guides remove all waste from the tour areas we operate in and dispose of any waste found in the area, even when that waste isn’t connected to the operation of our tours.
  • We organize clean-up projects in multiple locations around Iceland at least once a year. The team members of Arctic Adventures – which include hundreds of people – regularly participate in such projects organized by others.
  • We recycle all waste at the office, including paper, plastic, cans, bottles, and compostable waste. We encourage our team to do so out in the field as well.
  • We make sure to properly dispose of all waste including batteries and hazardous waste. This applies to the field of operation as well as at Arctic Adventures facilities and offices.
  • We’ve eliminated the use of disposable or individually-packaged products where possible.
  • We use multipurpose culinary items on our tours and are extra careful to not use disposable cups for hot chocolate and coffee when served on our tours.
  • We bring ziplock bags on all of our Highland expeditions to make sure nothing gets left behind, including food, waste, or even toilet paper.
  • We inform clients of our “Leave No Trace” policy and explain how it applies to them.
  • We ensure no contaminants enter water sources or systems.
  • Our guides carefully inspect campsites and rest areas to ensure they are left in the same condition as they were found, if not better.

To Minimize the Impact of Our Operations on Wildlife

  • We’re committed to responsible whale watching and making sure that our actions don’t damage marine wildlife in any way. On our whale watching tours, we strictly follow the Code of Conduct developed by marine biologist experts at IceWhale (the Icelandic Whale Watching Association). This is a set of careful regulations that aim to minimize the impact of whale watching vessels on cetaceans and to increase the sustainability of whale watching operations in Iceland, both for animal welfare and passenger enjoyment.
  • We support the Orca Guardians, a new organization that helps promote sustainable killer whale watching in Iceland and has developed an orca-specific code of conduct for Icelandic killer whale watching boats.

To Support Local Businesses

  • On our multi-day tours, we regularly visit remote farms and small communities where our guests can purchase handmade souvenirs and try authentic local food.
  • On our tours where meals are included, we use local products to support local farmers and producers.
    We’ve abolished the use of goods made by companies who fail to recognize environmental guidelines or their workers’ rights.

To Reduce Paper Use

  • We’ve decided to quit printing brochures or buying advertising in printed mediums. This step was taken to decrease the use of the toxic chemicals used to break down ingredients for paper production and in ink, as the inks used in industrial printing affect the environment in various harmful ways.
  • On our tours, we always accept e-vouchers; no printing needed.
  • We use online documents for all contracts and file keeping.
  • We recycle all the paper at our offices.

To Promote Responsible Travel

  • We work in close collaboration with Safetravel Iceland, a project from the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (ICE-SAR), which promotes safe and responsible travel in Iceland.
  • We support the “The Icelandic Pledge” campaign, which is a project from Promote Iceland, a public-private partnership established to promote Iceland as a tourism destination. The Icelandic Pledge is an online agreement designed to advocate responsible traveling. It offers tourists the ability to sign and take a pledge where they promise to respect nature when traveling in the country.
  • We are members of IceWhale (the Icelandic Whale Watching Association), whose aim is to inform and educate tourists about whale meat consumption in Iceland. The purpose of the campaign “Meet Us Don’t Eat Us” is to gain visitor’s support to end commercial whaling instead of contributing to it by ordering whale in Reykjavík restaurants.
  • During our tours, we discourage travelers from taking natural souvenirs and encourage them to take only photographs instead.
  • Our guides educate all participants on how they can minimize their environmental impact by, for example, staying on marked paths and trails whenever possible.

For press releases about our recent green efforts, check out our media page.

Planting Entire Forests in Iceland

Arctic Adventures has recently signed a contract with the Iceland Carbon Fund (Kolviður) to plant 10,000 trees in their forests. The fund was started by two non-profit organizations, the Icelandic Forestry Association (Skógræktarfélag Íslands) and the Icelandic Environment Association (Landvernd). Together, they make it possible for companies to offset their unavoidable emissions through donations.

The donation will be spent planting trees and expanding Iceland’s forests, thus neutralizing the carbon released into the atmosphere and combating soil erosion. Kolvidur also works to increase public awareness of carbon emissions.

Their forests are strategically planted to absorb the maximum amount of CO2 and are protected for a minimum of 60 years until the trees grow strong. During their lifetime, the trees absorb carbon and store it in their root system, trunk, and branches. The forests prevent soil erosion and maintain the storage of carbon in the soil.

By planting 10,000 trees in Iceland, Arctic Adventures has offset 46% of its CO2 emissions from 2018. The contract brings us closer to becoming a carbon-neutral tour operator and preserving the beautiful nature we enjoy every day.

We also offer our customers the chance to join us in this project by choosing to offset the carbon from their trip with us. This option will be made available in the booking process for specific tours and customers will be offered the option to purchase one tree to plant in the Kolviður forests at each booking. Through this joint effort, we hope to become 100% carbon neutral by the end of 2020.

Arctic Adventures’ Official Quality and Environmental Certificate

We are proud bearers of the Vakinn Silver Class Environmental Certificate, which is an official recognition of our high standards concerning sustainability, the environment, and social responsibility.

Arctic Adventures has been awarded and has maintained this official quality and environmental certification for several years now. Only tourism businesses that maintain high standards in all aspects of their business practices and meet Vakinn’s comprehensive assessment criteria earn the right to carry this official label.

Certified businesses have proven they operate in an ethical, professional, and environmentally-sustainable way and have the required systems and policies to provide a safe and happy holiday in Iceland with a minimized impact on the environment.

The preservation of the magnificent Icelandic nature for future generations has always been very important to Arctic Adventures. We believe that the protection of fragile ecosystems and wildlife habitats is as necessary as finding ways to reduce our individual and collective ecological footprints.

We’re proud to be an officially recognized sustainable tour operator and are constantly on the lookout for new ways to improve our sustainability and set new standards in Iceland’s young adventure tourism industry. Together, we can keep our fragile wilderness areas intact for future generations to enjoy.