SUSTAINABLE TOURISM IN ICELAND | VAKINN CERTIFIED

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 back in November 2017 and decided right away that the only way to run tours in Iceland was to do so sustainably. Before picking up our very first customer we knew we had to start the right way. 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.

So, the first thing we did was to utilise the advice provided by Iceland’s eminent quality and environmental body, Vakinn. This framework gave us the confidence to build our own Safety Management Plan and Environmental Policy. As Hidden Iceland continued to grow over the years, there was an increasing need to formalise our in-house activities. Therefore, in the summer of 2020, we decided to apply for accreditation with Vakinn, eventually gaining our quality and environmental certificate in December of 2020. It was a lot of work but ultimately worth it, even if many of the criteria had already been met. Simply, taking the time to reflect on ‘how and why we do things’ really helped us streamline operations. This is a prestigious award in Iceland for the tourism sector, not held by many, so to say that the team at Hidden Iceland are honoured by this accolade would be an understatement.

After further review in May 2021, Hidden Iceland was then provided with the Gold Class Environmental certificate, replacing our already Bronze level. This is the highest level certificate available in Iceland so we certainly celebrated that night.

From day one, until now, Hidden Iceland remains 100% Carbon Neutral through sustainable tourism practices and ethical investing with Climate Care and other offsetting bodies.

A few of the ways we maintain a sustainable practice is by reducing our impact when possible. We reuse everything we can, and educate our guests about the effects of climate change. Especially when it comes to the ever melting glaciers of Iceland.

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 on our glacier tours. We hike on glaciers that have lost more ice in the last 20 years than in the previous 150. Physical evidence of the glaciers retreat can be seen clearly as we walk to the front of the Sólheimajökull glacier on our South Coast: Fire & Ice trip. The evidence is also easily apparent on Falljökull Glacier within the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vatnajökull National Park, on our Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon 2 Day tour.

Below is just a few of the ways in which we try to promote sustainable tourism in Iceland as we grow and explore new areas of the country.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

This statements is very often overused and sadly, even more often underperformed. 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. For example, a Mercedes mini-bus for a small group of 12. It’s very disheartening seeing other companies bouncing around in gas guzzling super jeeps while driving on well maintained, flat roads. 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. We were not happy with other companies managing this for us so in the summer of 2018 we move all cleaning and recycling facilities in-house. This has allowed us to dramatically reduce water usage for vehicle cleaning as well as choosing to only use environmentally friendly chemicals. We take all waste from our customers throughout the trip and transport the sorted recycling straight to the Icelandic recycling centre, Sorpa. No middle man for us anymore. By having our own premises in the up and coming Grandi area we can also hold our inventory/ equipment in a clean and warm environment. This allows us to monitor, repair and reuse all tour specific equipment.

Group management is also key to keeping waste to a minimum. On our Falljökull glacier hike, in the UNESCO Vatnajökull National Park, 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. Hopefully, not just for that day, but from then on out. It’s all too common that our guests will ask very pointed questions following our trips. Usually focussing on ‘what can I do to reduce my impact?’ and ensure sustainability in Iceland is continued back home too. It would seem, simply being a bit conscientious isn’t enough following their trip to Iceland.

Sustainable Tourism

Sustainable tourism is again a difficult statement to understand. What is sustainable tourism anyway? It’s just a buzz word right? Well, Hidden Iceland’s mantra covers the definition quite well in my opinion,

Hidden Iceland believe that small groups in appropriate sized vehicles, with educated guides who are well versed in the visited area and who can manage a small group effectively, goes a long way to becoming a sustainable tourism company. Coupled with a 100% carbon neutral stance, a strict waste management policy and Vakinn Certification, we can seek to keep our impact as low as possible.

Ryan Connolly – Environmental Manager, Hidden Iceland

Sadly, individuals and other companies in Iceland do not follow such a basic premise. In fact, watching places in Iceland like the natural 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’ and it personally pains me to hear it. The reality is, if you flood an area with hundreds of tourists and say, ‘be back in 50 minutes’ you will inevitably destroy the area…one misplaced footstep at a time. That’s why ‘group management’ is so important to our philosophy.

Aside from acting as provisional caretakers of this pristine landscape, our guides delight in sharing their local knowledge too. 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. It turns out, taking care of our environment actually enhances the customer experience.

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 allows us to keep the area preserved and respected. But it also adds an extra level of immersion to the trip.

To give an example, our Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon 2 day tour gives us the incredible chance to stand at the edge of the breath-taking glacier lagoon. It’s often the highlight of the trip for many of our guests. But learning that this wonder of nature happened because climate change rapidly melted the glacier, makes it an even more visceral reaction. Understanding why it’s disappearing creates a sense of wonder and temporary nature to the experience.

A quick lesson for anyone who hasn’t yet joined us. It took close to a thousand years to form the glacier ice you see bobbing up and down in the newly melted ice lagoon. Sadly, the glacier that is shrinking before your eyes is melting the ice at a much fast rate. That means your view will never be the same again. Not even tomorrow. The phrase, beauty is fleeting, holds up here quite well.

Climate change and the glaciers

Even since Hidden Iceland started back in 2017 we’ve seen one of the most popular glaciers lost for guiding, Svínafellsjökull. This is not due to ‘over-use’ but rather a warming climate. This particular glacier, lovingly nicknamed ‘the Hollywood Glacier’, was used in TV shows like Game of Thrones and movies like Batman Begins and Interstellar. The rapidly shrinking glacier has left behind an exposed rock face that is prone to massive landslides. Sadly, this means no more guiding on this glacier.

Disappearing glaciers is sadly a fact that is being repeated across the country, more and more;

Another example is, the documentary Not OK, which was released in 2019, referencing one of Iceland’s glaciers being de-categorised as a glacier due to its diminished size. It has even been renamed from Okjökull (Ok glacier) to simply Ok. You can see where the catchy title came from.

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Photo by Brendan Bannister. Feature
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Photo by Brendan Bannister. Feature

Also, 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 like ours, that puts such a focus on sustainable tourism in Iceland, specialising in immersive travel onto glaciers and other untouched terrain, it is definitely concerning reading the new report published by the UN. The UN publication states that drastic action is needed to stop this onset of climate change. Estimates say that we have until 2030 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. Nothing compared to the warming global temperatures anyway. It’s best to liken our personal impact to ‘walking on the grass’. In fact, the biggest contributing factor to the melting of these glaciers is two fold. Namely, global temperature rises and direct pollution. If we are to compare our personal affect as like ‘walking on the grass’ then the ‘warming temperature’ affect is like digging up the garden with a bulldozer.

The reality is, 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.

Ethical investing

Is all of this enough to truly call ourselves an environmentally conscious company? Possibly. But we wanted to go one step further.

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. For now we’re patiently waiting for technology to make electric mini-buses available and useful to us. Until then, we offset.

Thankfully, most of Iceland’s energy comes from renewable sources already which has helped us keep the offsetting bill a little lower. Dedicating some of our income to go carbon neutral was difficult, especially in the cash poor days when starting the business. However, it was something that meant a lot to us so we made it work. And we’ve managed to maintain neutrality ever since.

Climate Care 1 Hidden Iceland.

What is ethical investing and offsetting?

It’s simple. We used an online calculator from Climate Care following sage advice from the climate care advisors. We then determine how many greenhouse gas emissions our small company creates. Whether that’s from our tours, vehicles or energy consumption.

The funny thing is that the cost to offset all our emissions 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 as 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’ creeps up, we can confidently say that offsetting your emissions is an affordable and easy first step.

Climate Care is an investment fund that takes your contribution and invests it into 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 went directly to initiatives that reduce emissions and improve lives. These include producing efficient cookstoves in Ghana, environmentally sourced safe drinking water 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. Sustainable tourism in Iceland, and the world, also allows all of these benefits to be achieved.

Hidden Iceland is committed to sustainable tourism. Offsetting, educating, and maintaining sustainable practices is a good start. We know that there is still much more we can do. We will always strive to do our best 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.

Ryan (1)

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.

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Sustainable tourism in Iceland | Hidden Iceland

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