Sustainable tourism in Iceland is a hot topic at the moment. Discussion of apparent over-tourism and environmental effects are at the forefront. But there is a lot more to it than that. From moss turning brown, to metal bars being raised at popular attractions, to walking off the path, to glaciers disappearing. We are all too aware of the changing environment that has been affected by both climate change and tourism.
Hidden Iceland began running tours in earnest back in November 2017 and decided right away that the only to run tours in Iceland was to do so sustainably. To us being a sustainable tourism company was not as simple as just following a strict Environmental Policy and leaving each place the same as it was found. This is a great mantra, but there is much more to be done. As Hidden Iceland keeps on growing, we still remain 100% Carbon Neutral through sustainable tourism practices and ethical investing with Climate Care.
A few of the ways we maintain a sustainable practice is by reducing our impact when possible, reusing everything we can, and educating our guests about the effects of climate change. Especially when it comes to the ever melting glaciers of Iceland.
In fact, many of our trips are punctuated by the passion and knowledge of our guides who care very deeply about the environment. These changes are all too apparent when hiking on a glacier that has lost more ice in the last 10 years than in the previous 100. Physical evidence of the glaciers retreat can be seen as we hike on Sólheimajökull glacier on our South Coast: Fire & Ice trip and even more so on Falljökull Glacier within UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vatnajökull National Park on our Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon 2 Day tour.
We’ve detailed below just a few of the ways in which we try to remain sustainable as we grow and explore new areas of the country.
Reduce and Reuse
This statements is very often overused and under performed. Mainly because it is so hard to quantify and monitor.
Hidden Iceland reduces the impact on the environment from our trips by only using vehicles that are appropriate for the group size and activity. It’s very disheartening seeing big bus companies drop off 5 customers out of a 40 seat vehicle. Or seeing large gas guzzling super jeeps driving around the tranquil roads of the Golden Circle. Aside from the physical cost being transferred to the customer it is also unnecessarily bad for the environment.
We are also committed to keeping waste at a minimum. No unnecessary printing and adhering to strict recycling rules. But it’s easy enough to do this ourselves.
We have recently moved to our own premises in the up and coming Grandi area. This has allowed us to monitor our own recycling and clean our vehicles in the least wasteful way possible.
Group management is also key to keeping waste to a minimum. Every time we step into the Vatnajökull National Park for our glacier hike of Falljökull glacier the first thing we do is talk about preserving what we are seeing that day. A popular phrase in the guiding community is “take only pictures, leave only footprints”.
However, the reality is that sticking to assigned paths, understanding the fragility of the flora, and educating the guests about the retreating glaciers gives our guests a deeper respect for the environment. Not just for that day, but from then on. It’s all too common that our guests will ask very pointed questions following our trips on what can they can do to help. Simply being a bit conscientious doesn’t seem to be enough following their trip to Iceland.
Sustainable tourism is again a difficult statement to quantify. What is sustainable tourism? Hidden Iceland believe that small groups in appropriate vehicles with guides who are well versed in the area. Who also carefully take care of the group is the definition of sustainable tourism.
Watching places in Iceland like the hot pools in Mývatn or the waterfall of Brúarafoss be restricted for access due to tourists running a mock gives rises to quotes like ‘Iceland is too crowded’. The reality is that if you flood an area with hundreds of tourists and say, ‘be back in 50 minutes’ then inevitably the area is going to be slowly but surely destroyed.
Our guides delight in sharing their local knowledge. Picking berries along the paths, naming flowers and expressing their love for Icelandic nature is not a chore and yet it can add so much to the sustainability piece.
Educating our guests
We personally take you carefully through some of the most beautiful and pristine places in the country. And we do this with the utmost attention to detail. Educating our guests not only allows us to keep the area preserved and respected. It also adds an extra component of immersion to the trip.
To give an example on our Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon 2 day tour gives us the incredible chance to stand at the edge of the breathtaking glacier lagoon. But learning that this wonder of nature happened because climate change rapidly shrunk the glacier behind it over the past 50 years leaving behind a glacier graveyard of icebergs makes it much more visceral of a reaction. Natural beauty can be temporary. Especially in the ever changing volcanic island of Iceland.
Climate change and the glaciers
Even since Hidden Iceland back in 2017 one of the popular guiding glaciers, Svínafellsjökull has become inaccessible due to a warming climate. This particular glacier, lovingly nicknamed ‘the Hollywood Glacier’ was the used in TV shows like Game of Thrones and mvoies like Batman Begins and Insterstellar. The rapidly shrinking glacier has left behind an exposed rock face that is prone to massive landslides. This means no more guiding on this glacier. A fact that is sadly being repeated across the country.
The documentary Not OK was released earlier this year referencing one of Iceland’s ice caps now being de-categorised as a glacier due to its diminished size.
The team at Extreme Ice Survey created the Chasing Ice documentary on climate change which continuously monitors the depletion of glaciers in Iceland and worldwide. This can currently be found on Netflix.
So for a company that specialises in immersive travel onto glaciers and other untouched terrain it’s a definite concern reading about the new report published by the UN stating that drastic action is needed to stop this onset of climate change. Estimates say that we have 12 years to dramatically change how we create energy, consume meals, and run our businesses or it’ll be too late to ‘fix’.
Every day when we step onto one of the remaining glaciers we see climate change in action. The figures vary in terms of depletion but the cold hard fact is that most of the glaciers worldwide are melting at unprecedented speeds.
It’s a scary fact and one that we are careful to educate our guests on. Many people ask if our physical walking on the ice has a major impact in the melting process. It doesn’t. It’s best to liken our personal impact to ‘walking on the grass’.
The biggest contributing factor to these glaciers is two fold. Global temperature rises and direct pollution. If our personal affect is like walking on the grass then the climate change affect is like digging up the garden with a bulldozer.
Flying to Iceland has the biggest impact on the glaciers themselves in terms of personal contributions. So our guests again ask, what can they do to reduce their impact. Our answer, though not all encompassing, is often the same;
Reduce, reuse, educate then offset.
Is all of this enough to truly call ourselves an environmentally conscious company? We didn’t think so.
So with the help of the award winning company, Climate Care, we swore to offset every single emission we generate. We’ve reduced as much as we can but zero emissions are impossible while there are still fuel based cars on the roads.
Luckily most of Iceland’s energy comes from renewable sources already which has helped us keep the bill a little lower. Dedicating some of our income to go carbon neutral was difficult. Very difficult at times, especially during the cash hungry summer season. But it was decided from day 1 that it was important to us and we’ve managed to maintain neutrality ever since.
What is ethical investing and offsetting?
It’s simple. We used an online calculator from Climate Care following sage advice from climate care advisors. We then determine how many greenhouse gas emissions our small company creates. Whether that’s from vehicles, flights or energy consumption.
The funny thing is that the cost to offset our emissions completely was staggeringly low (at first). So low in fact that the founders had to contact climate care to confirm they hadn’t made a calculation mistake. These days the price has risen, but then so has our customer base. And we’re still committed as ever. It made us question why other companies aren’t doing the same. If the price is minuscule then shouldn’t it just be standard practice? So whenever we’re chatting with our customers and that question of what can be done we can confidently say that offsetting your emissions is an affordable and easy way to help the world.
Once the calculator has given you an offset figure you can choose to add 10% of unforeseen emissions to give you peace of mind that your truly carbon neutral. That’s what we do.
Climate Care is an investment fund that takes your contribution and invests it in renewable and ethical projects. This was very important to Hidden Iceland as simply donating cash to some unknown cause didn’t seem beneficial or transparent. This year our contributions have went directly to helping produce efficient cookstoves in Ghana, safe drinking water without the use of fuel to boil in Kenya and wind farms in India.
These projects, among many others create jobs, improve families, protect wildlife, preserve local resources, and fight climate change.
Hidden Iceland is committed to sustainable tourism and although offsetting, educating, and maintaining sustainable practices is a good start we know that there is still much more we can do to help tackle climate change and the effects of tourism on the environment.
To offset your own emissions go to Climate Care to calculate your emissions.
Hi I’m Ryan Connolly, I’ve guided in multiple countries and spent the last three years travelling across the globe. I have spent the past 2 years studying everything related to glaciers, climate change, and Iceland in my spare time.