There’s a lot of discussion in Iceland right now about how to tackle the ever growing number of visitors in a sustainable way. There are a few things we need to fix such as infrastructure, road conditions and access to toilet facilities to name a couple, and local attitudes but there’s a great deal you can do too. We are all busy discussing these thing among ourselves but no one is including you, the visitor, in the conversation.
When I travel I try to be mindful about these things but it can be hard to know what is the best way to do things in a new country. To make it easier for you I’ve put together these seven secrets of being an awesome traveler in Iceland based on the things I’ve heard come up in conversations during my travels around Iceland this summer.
1) Dare to be different
Iceland is a beautiful place and you don’t have to do the Golden Circle or the south shore to experience that. The reason everyone is so focused on South Iceland is not that it’s more beautiful or amazing than other areas in Iceland, it has simply been marketed better. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do the south shore, it’s spectacular, but so are many other areas in Iceland so don’t feel like you are missing out just because you didn’t see Gullfoss and Geysir. The best part about traveling on the road less traveled is the simple fact that it’s less traveled.
2) Buy Local
Try if you can to buy local products and use local tour companies and guides. It’s more sustainable and you leave the money you spend in the area you are visiting. Instead of buying a pair of lopi mittens in a tourist shop in Kringlan buy them from the person who knits them at a local farmer’s market like the Ljómalind Farmers Market in Borgarnes. Ljómalind, by the way, is an awesome concept (and a new favorite) where all the products are made by people from the area and the quality of the products and authentication is in the hands of a selection committee that doesn’t let just anything through. You should check them out.
Also, think about splurging on a meal if a town far off the grid has a nice little restaurant instead of shopping for your whole trip in Bónus on your way out of Reykjavík. I know it costs a bit more but by supporting restaurants like that you help make sure that the next time you pass by, having forgot to visit Bónus, there is a restaurant available to fall back on.
3) Only do business with licensed companies
- This is what the license badges that the Icelandic tourists board issues look like
There’s a growing problem in Icelandic tourism that people that don’t have the necessary licenses and insurances are selling trips, offering accommodation and renting out cars. This is a problem for many reasons, mainly that it’s against the law, but also because the licensing and the insurances are there to protect you as a consumer. Furthermore, if a company doesn’t have the licensing in order there’s a good chance that they are not taking care of things like paying taxes either and are therefore not contributing to the economy to maintain necessary infrastructure in the country.
If you are not sure whether the company you are doing business with is licensed or not, you can follow these links for information about accommodation, travel agencies and tour operators. It’s also good to simply ask the company about these things because then you put pressure on them to get matters in order if they aren’t already,.
4) Cut out the middle man
OK, this one is a bit complicated because the travel sector is basically an ecosystem of it’s own and at every stage of it there’s someone providing employment, paying taxes and contributing to society in some way but I still want you to give this a thought. Say you have a little guesthouse where the owner, along with a staff member or two, meticulously provides a quality service at a fair price. Then you have a big luxury travel agency that does not only get commission when they sell the service the guesthouse provides but also maneuvers the owner to lower the price even more and then sells the product at a higher price than the guesthouse to the customer. You as a customer end up paying more and the guesthouse gets less. Is this fair?
I’m not saying you shouldn’t use travel agencies because they are an important link in the chain and often also provide quality service and offer exposure to the guesthouse that they can’t match on their own but sometimes, just sometimes if at all possible, try cutting out the middle man. Support the little guy , the mamas and the papas, and the person who actually does the work
5) Don’t drive outside designated roads and paths
One of the reason Iceland is so breathtakingly beautiful is the fact that it’s a relatively young island with a lot of volcanic landscape and some seriously harsh weathers. Vegetation here is really fragile in most places and in many cases a lot of effort has been put into simply keeping the little that grows alive. When you drive outside of designated roads and paths you risk causing permanent damage to an already frail ecosystem.
Check out this brochure made by the Environment Agency of Iceland about off-road driving.
6) Don’t pee and poop all over the place
I feel kind of ridiculous even putting this here but apparently it’s been a problem this summer that travelers are doing their business all over the place. You probably haven’t noticed this because obviously the locals in the area don’t want this mess around so they’ve been trying to clean things up. I’ve heard some nasty stories though.
Just use toilets, please. Enough said..
7) Listen to local advice
You know how often I read about travelers that get themselves into trouble, or worse get hurt or die, because they don’t listen to local advice? Often!
It doesn’t matter how much you have traveled, in Iceland or in other places, the locals will always know more about road conditions, the weather and special circumstances than you will. Even though we have awesome rescue squads there’s no reason to risk their lives with unnecessary rescue missions that could have been easily avoided.