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In Focus: New Limits on Short-term Rentals

Reykjavík drone

In May, Iceland’s Parliament passed an amendment aiming to limit short-term rentals in the Southwest region. The legislation bans businesses from renting out units classified as residential housing on short-term rental sites such as Airbnb. The amendment is a response to rising housing prices in the country and an Airbnb boom in downtown Reykjavík. So, […]

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In Focus: Tourist Safety

reykjanes grindavík

In October of last year, the latest period of seismic and volcanic activity began in the Reykjanes peninsula in the southwest of Iceland. The area lies near the capital region and is home to Keflavík International Airport, the Blue Lagoon, and multiple towns, hotels, and attractions. With four eruptions in the Sundhnúkagígar crater system during this spell, it’s no wonder that prospective tourists have been asking themselves if it’s still safe to visit Iceland.

The short answer is “yes, absolutely.” The long answer is “yes, but use common sense!” Iceland is an island located on a rift between tectonic plates, created by the very same volcanic activity we see today. Icelanders have had to learn how to stay safe in harsh conditions, but these natural forces have also formed the beautiful landscapes that make the island worth inhabiting and visiting.

víðir reynisson
Víðir Reynisson – Photo submitted by Almannavarnir.

As a result of these conditions, there is a strong base of knowledge and experience within Iceland’s institutions, universities, and emergency response units when it comes to volcanic eruptions. Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson says that securing tourist safety during the current volcanic activity in Reykjanes has proved a relatively straightforward project for authorities in the larger scheme of things. “But we do get asked a lot about the effects on transportation, especially air travel, and the comparison to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption,” he says.

The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption created an ash cloud that disrupted air travel within, to, and from Europe for days. “The volcanic activity in Reykjanes, however, is of the kind that only has an impact locally,” Víðir says. “These are fissure eruptions and the lava only flows for a few kilometres. This makes it easier for us to control who can access the area and provide all the necessary information. We can easily close off or reduce traffic so people don’t get themselves in trouble when there’s danger afoot. In this regard, the impact is low, both for tourists and the locals who travel through these areas.”

Ample time to evacuate

The latest Sundhnúkagígar eruption ended on May 9 after chugging along for 54 days. Protective barriers have been constructed to limit the impact on nearby settlements. The town of Grindavík has already suffered severe infrastructure damage due to earthquakes, subsidence, and faults though inhabitants were evacuated well before three houses were destroyed by the lava flow in January. The damage could’ve been worse, but thankfully scientists and authorities had time to respond. Many worry that the situation will be different if an eruption takes place further west in Svartsengi, where the popular Blue Lagoon spa, several hotels, and a geothermal plant are situated.

“In Sundhnúkagígar, we’ve only had very little notice from when the magma starts breaking through until an eruption begins, ranging from a few minutes and up to an hour,” Víðir says. “But this area is relatively far away from where people tend to be. If we look at the Svartsengi area, scientists tell us that the notice would be at least 4 to 8 hours. If the magma were to breach through, it would come with tremendous seismic activity. This had already happened in Sundhnúkagígar and culminated in the November 10 earthquakes. We’d need to see this kind of havoc first if magma were to reach the surface in Svartsengi or other nearby areas.”

grindavík safety
Grindavík. Photo by Art Bicnick.

The Blue Lagoon has already been evacuated multiple times in anticipation of imminent eruptions in Sundhnúkagígar, but has always reopened and remains open at the time of writing. Blue Lagoon management has stated that they prioritise the safety of their guests and staff, employ a team of trained staff to carry out evacuations, monitor gas pollution from nearby eruptions, and cooperate closely with authorities.

“All our evacuation plans are based on getting people away within an hour, even if we’re sure to have a much larger time frame,” Víðir says. “This has been the case during our evacuations of Svartsengi so far, including all the hotels, the Blue Lagoon and the nearby geothermal power station. We’ve generally managed to evacuate everyone within 40 to 60 minutes.”

No one in harm’s way

Icelandic authorities have been concerned about how the natural disasters are being presented in international media. So much so, in fact, that Minister of Tourism, Trade, and Culture Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir launched a campaign to respond to and correct news coverage that painted Iceland as a dangerous tourist destination and could impact the tourism industry.

“First off, people seem to think that the whole country is in a state of emergency due to the volcano,” Víðir says. “We get asked how it has impacted Reykjavík, if Keflavík International Airport is still in operation, and whether everything has broken down. The other thing is that because of the excellent publicity we got in 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull erupted and air traffic in Europe was affected, that is exactly what people think of when they learn about a new volcano in Iceland. The first question from all major international media has always been whether it will become like the Eyjafjallajökull eruption.”

grindavík safety
Grindavík. Photo by Art Bicnick.

Víðir has tried to correct this in interviews with international television, print, and radio media. He also connects reporters to local specialists when further details are needed. “But I also tell people that we’d never put anyone in harm’s way. Our number one concern is the people working on the protective barriers who we monitor closely. But if we thought tourists were at any risk, we’d simply close areas off. Everything around the fissure is closed off, and no one should go there. We still see people get themselves into trouble, getting their cars stuck, getting lost and injured. But any visitor in Iceland can travel around, see the glow from eruptions from a great distance when they’re active, go to the Blue Lagoon, and enjoy Reykjanes activities. The area we’ve closed off isn’t very large.”

Follow instructions

The key to staying safe is following instructions, Víðir reiterates. “We’ve labelled clearly where people can go and where they can’t. You can see the instructions for instance on the road leading to the Blue Lagoon. People need to respect the road signs and there are also many people working on this in the area that they can ask if they have questions or need directions.”

Víðir adds that SafeTravel.is has all the necessary information and that Icelandic media is quick with updates in English when anything happens.

In Focus: Traffic Safety

traffic safety iceland

 

January of 2024 was the deadliest month in terms of traffic deaths in Iceland’s history. Six people lost their lives in car accidents; one in an accident near Vík, two on Grindavíkurvegur, two near Skaftafell, and one in Hvalfjörður. Such a rate of fatal accidents had not been seen since record keeping began some 50 years ago.

Iceland ranks among the safer countries in Europe when it comes to road safety, and the accident rate has declined steadily over the last couple of decades due to road improvements and safer cars. The deadliest year of this century was in 2000, when 32 people died in traffic. In comparison, nine people died in traffic collisions in all of 2023.

But as tourism increases beyond pre-pandemic levels, and more and more cars hit the often-icy roads, authorities are looking for new ways to ensure motorist safety. In addition to costing lives, traffic collisions incur an estimated ISK 40 billion [$289 million, €268 million] in costs for Icelandic society as a whole. In order to tackle the issue, the Ministry of Infrastructure adopted a 15-year road safety plan last year. Focusing on the three principles of safer motorists, safer roads, and safer vehicles, the plan aims to make Iceland one of the top five European nations in traffic safety by decreasing the number of deaths and serious injuries by 5% every year until 2038. Additionally, the plan aims to reduce collision-related costs during this period.

Not zero yet

When introducing the plan last year, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, Minister of Infrastructure, said that Iceland should aspire to reach the same levels of road safety as it has for safety at sea. “We must always look to decrease the number of accidents, prevent pain, and minimise societal cost,” he said. “With increased investment in road infrastructure, we can adopt a Vision Zero policy like many of our peer nations.”

traffic safety iceland

Vision Zero is a multi-national road traffic safety project that aims to achieve a system with no fatalities or serious injuries. Instead of a cost-benefit analysis, where monetary value is placed on life and health, Vision Zero is based on the principle that “life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within the society.” The project was first adopted in Sweden in 1997, where traffic fatalities have steadily decreased despite an increase in traffic. It has since been implemented in various cities and countries across the globe. With Vision Zero, speed limits are lowered, especially in urban areas, as collisions at lower speeds are less likely to cause serious harm.

The new Icelandic road safety plan does not adopt Vision Zero, as a 5% decrease in the number of deaths and serious injuries would still leave room for some 80 such cases per year at the tail end of the plan in 2038. However, the plan includes benchmarks in the spirit of Vision Zero, such as no traffic fatalities among children under 14 or due to lack of seat belt use.

Unfamiliar conditions

Car rental companies in Iceland announced record profits in 2022 as tourism resurged following the lifting of COVID restrictions. At the same time, the number of rental cars available in Iceland reached an all-time high. Tourist numbers have bounced back from pandemic lows and are expected to break the previous annual record this year, with a steady rise projected in the coming years.

This increase in drivers on the roads brings new challenges. Iceland’s roads can become dangerous due to sudden shifts in weather. Additionally, snowfall and fog can blind drivers, while low temperatures can cause roads to become slippery. As many tourists are not used to driving in these conditions, authorities are concerned that without proper information, they can end up in harm’s way. Locals themselves are also not immune to the difficulties of these circumstances, even on safer urban roads. In January, for example, traffic chaos ensued in Reykjavík when a power outage coincided with a snowstorm. Dozens of collisions were reported, thankfully none involving serious injuries.

traffic safety iceland

In some cases, car rental companies have taken it upon themselves to advise tourists on road safety. Common advice includes heeding wind and weather warnings, informing them that headlights must be on at all times according to law (even during daytime), being careful on single-lane bridges, keeping an eye out for sheep on the road, slowing down when approaching gravel roads, and never stopping on the side of the road to take photos, especially on the busy Ring Road that circles the island. Off-road driving is also illegal in Iceland. Both residents and visitors have put themselves in danger by driving off road, not to mention the environmental harm and punitive repercussions of driving illegally on precarious soil.

Goals for foreign drivers

The road safety plan also seeks to decrease serious collisions involving travellers from abroad. “Foreign tourists in Iceland often find themselves in conditions that are alien to them and can therefore face trouble while driving,” the road safety plan reads. “In order to decrease the likelihood that they become involved in an accident, we need to inform them about the uniqueness of Icelandic traffic and Icelandic roads, while encouraging them to use seat belts, observe the legal speed limits, and follow other rules that are in place here.”

traffic safety iceland

The plan also includes a segment on providing migrant motorists with information on Icelandic traffic rules, as they may differ from what applies in their home countries. Driving licences issued by member states of the European Economic Area, which includes the European Union, Lichtenstein, Norway, and Iceland, are recognised and valid in Iceland, even if the motorists have had no training or experience with the subarctic conditions with which new Icelandic drivers must familiarise themselves. The plan also notes that migrants who don’t speak Icelandic should be accommodated when it comes to educational and preventive material on traffic safety.

Public transport, private responsibility

Lastly, the slow but ongoing process of improving public transport in Iceland should gradually make roads safer by decreasing the number of cars on the roads. Borgarlínan, a Bus Rapid Transit system for the greater capital area, is in the works and is expected to decrease congestion on roads in the city as its population continues to grow, while having a positive environmental impact. Buses also service most rural areas and remain an economical option for travel outside the city limits.

traffic safety iceland

The bottom line, however, is that most traffic accidents are caused by human error. Most of them take place in urban areas, but the more dangerous – and sometimes deadly – ones tend to happen in the countryside where speed limits are higher, trips are longer, and driver attention is more likely to waver. “It is therefore important,” the road safety plan states, “that our behaviour in traffic is in accordance with rules and in tune with conditions so everyone gets home safely.”

In Focus: Prisons in Iceland

litla hraun prison iceland

On September 25, 2023, Justice Minister Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir announced a series of reforms to Iceland’s prisons. They included increasing the number of rooms in women’s prison Sogn from 21 to 35 and revisions to the Enforcement Act. The biggest news, however, was that the country’s largest prison, Litla-Hraun, would be replaced with new facilities, projected […]

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In Focus: A brief chronology of the Reykjanes eruptions

litli-hrútur reykjanes

800 years of quiet Prior to 2021, it had been almost 800 years since a volcanic eruption had occurred on the Reykjanes peninsula in Southwest Iceland. Between 1211 and 1240, a series of eruptions, referred to as the Reykjanes Fires, took place during a heightened period of volcanic activity that began around 950. 2021 Fagradalsfjall […]

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In Focus: The Króna and the Euro

icelandic króna isk

The Icelandic króna was introduced as currency when Iceland gained its sovereignty from Denmark in 1918, with the first coins issued in 1922. At the time, one Icelandic króna was equal to one Danish krone. Today, the Icelandic króna has been devalued to such a degree that you’d need 2,000 of the original króna for […]

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In Focus: The 2023 Women’s Strike

women's strike 2023

On October 24, 2023, thousands of people swarmed Arnarhóll hill in downtown Reykjavík, holding protesting signs, babies, and each other’s hands, turning the city centre into a historic spectacle. Iceland’s seventh Women’s Strike (Kvennaverkfall) had a much larger turnout than expected, with the crowd spilling out across Hverfisgata and Lækjargata streets. An estimated 70,000 to […]

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In Focus: Bjarni Benediktsson

bjarni benediktsson

A snap press conference On Monday, October 10, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson called a snap press conference. The call came on the heels of an opinion authored by the Parliamentary Ombudsman that concluded that the Minister of Finance’s role in the ongoing privatisation process of the Íslandsbanki bank – which had been nationalised following the 2008 […]

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In Focus: Cruise Ships

cruise ship iceland

Small town Iceland isn’t what it used to be. During the peak summer season, some of Iceland’s coastal communities are bustling with cruise ship tourists, overwhelming local residents many times over. For some, these tourists represent an injection of cosmopolitan vitality into otherwise small, sleepy towns. For others, they represent the noise, pollution, and crowds […]

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In Focus: Asylum Seeker Evictions

asylum iceland

New legislation on immigration passed in Iceland’s Parliament last spring states that asylum seekers whose asylum applications have received a final rejection will be stripped of essential services unless they consent to deportation. As a result, dozens of asylum seekers unable to leave the country for reasons personal or political are being stripped of housing […]

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