Fewer Foreigners, More Icelanders Booking Overnight Accommodation

Overnight accommodations booked by foreigners were down this June as compared with June of 2017, Kjarninn reports. This marks the first time since 2008 that June bookings among foreign tourists have been lower from one year to the next. At the same time that foreign bookings have been down, however, overnight stays booked by Icelanders have been on the increase.

Figures published by Statistics Iceland show that while the number of overall bookings has remained largely unchanged since last year—1.189 million bookings in 2017 to 1.195 million bookings in 2018—the number of overnight stays booked by foreign tourists (835,000 in June 2018) was down by 3% this year. By contrast, 163,000 Icelanders booked overnight stays in June 2018, which marks a 21% increase from the same time period last year. This represents the largest increase in domestic overnight stays as compared to those of foreign visitors since 2010, as well as the largest number of domestic overnight bookings that have ever been recorded in the month of June.

Ten Off-Road Driving Incidents Since June

The Environment Agency of Iceland has reported ten incidents of illegal, off-road driving since the beginning of June, RÚV reports. Division Head Ólafur A. Jónsson says there’s a need to better educate the public—and particularly visiting travelers—about areas in the countryside where people are not permitted to drive as many off-roading violations are, he says, inadvertent.

The ten incidents have taken place in the South and the Southern Highlands: two at Dýrhólaey promontory on the south coast, one at the Kerlingarfjöll mountain range in the highlands, and seven in the Fjallabak nature reserve. The damage done to the landscape was significant enough in these incidents to report them to the police.

Although Ólafur says there was not a cumulative increase in these incidents as of the end of last year, his office is, nevertheless, in almost daily contact with the police about similar issues and says that his office is still working on raising public awareness about the fragility of Iceland’s natural landscapes. To this end, the Environment Agency has begun collaborating with Search and Rescue on matters related to land protection and new educational materials distributed to tourists. They are also preparing a database which will chart all of the roads in Iceland that it is permissible for people to drive on. “In most cases, you want to think these were unintentional acts,” he says, “that people didn’t mean to do any damage, had thought it was permitted [to drive off-road] or something like that.”

Intentional or not, Ólafur believes that fines are important in the event of serious damage being done to the landscape. Only a few days ago, French tourists driving two jeeps were fined ISK 200,000 ($1,900/€1,600) each for off-road driving near Kerlingarfjöll mountain range. The travellers called for help when they got their cars stuck in mud near the mountain Loðmundur. The area has been closed to vehicles due to wet conditions. The individuals’ driving damaged vegetation and soil in the area. The two individuals were questioned at the police station in Selfoss, South Iceland, where they paid the fine.

“I think that everyone who comes [into a protected area] needs to pay a fine to the police,” he said. “When you get up to amounts like that, I think it’s really important.”

Electric Buses Exceed Expectations in Reykjavík

Fourteen electric buses in Reykjavík’s public transportation system have exceeded expectations, according to the Strætó’s CEO. He told RÚV the company plans to grow their electric fleet in the near future.

Strætó bought 14 electric buses from China recently, the first of which were put to use in April. “This has really gone incredibly well, and nothing unexpected has come up, so we are just really pleased with our experience of these vehicles,” Jóhannes Svavar Rúnarsson, Strætó’s CEO, told RÚV. Jóhannes says the buses have been driven between 10-12,000km over the past four months.

The CEO adds that five additional electric buses arrived in the country for the company last Friday. “We are hoping to get them from the importer next week and see them on the street sometime in the beginning of August. Then the rest will hopefully arrive at the end of this year and then that will be a pretty good proportion of the bus fleet,” he remarked.

Can Red Roads Save Tern Chicks?

A student at the University Centre of the Westfjords is painting the town red – but not in the traditional meaning of the phrase. “I’m looking at arctic terns and determining if painting the road will actually help keep them off of the road, especially the chicks,” Kelly Umlah, a master’s student studying Coastal and Marine Management at the university told RÚV.

Though arctic tern chicks are nearly full-grown at this time of year, they have yet to perfect the art of flying or learn to steer clear of danger such as vehicles. The chicks often land on paved roads, which collect heat and provide camouflage for the black, white, and grey birds.

That is where Umlah’s research comes in – the student has painted sections of road in Bolungarvík, Westfjords, red in order to discourage chicks from landing on it. The experiment is built on the results of a 2016 study that took place in Snæfellsnes, West Iceland where several bright colours were tested on roads for the same purpose. “I chose to do only red whereas they did a couple of different colours because they determined that red was the most consistent for keeping them off the road,” Umlah says.

The Canadian student checks on the nesting area three times a day to see whether any birds have been killed by impact with wheels or windshields, and notes whether birds are sitting on the road and if so on which part. “I would love to see that the birds stay off the red parts. It’s a relatively cheap way of managing the life of these birds, especially in nesting areas,” Umlah says. “And if they do stay off on the painted part it would be good to implement elsewhere in Iceland and around the world.”

Arctic terns in a nesting area in Bolungarvík

Þingvellir Road to Close for Two Months

Road 36 through Þingvellir National Park will be closed from tomorrow, July 31, until October. The two-month closure is due to repairs and will apply to the section of the road which passes through the park. RÚV reported first.

Þingvellir National Park is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland and one of the stops on the Golden Circle route. The park receives some 500,000 visitors per year.

Travellers in the region are directed to bypass the closure through road 361 (Vallavegur). The road is however narrow and not suited for large vehicles. Travellers are thus advised caution and encouraged to consider other routes while the closure stands.

In a statement released on July 26, the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration recommended tourism companies use smaller vehicles in the park while the repairs are ongoing. The administration also stated that Road 36, also known as Þingvallavegur, will be closed again in the spring.

Einar Sæmundsen, a park ranger at Þingvellir, says fully closing the road was the best option under the circumstances. “When the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration was looking at this it was absolutely clear that all of the options were difficult, it is difficult terrain in which to repair a road and especially under the requirements we put forth,” Einar stated. “We want it to be[…] restored as well as possible. That’s why they have to tackle the whole road.”

Further road and travel information can be accessed at road.is.

Policy Needed to Combat Invasive Plant Species

Foreign plant seeds and pests that are brought into Iceland can cause damage to the Icelandic ecosystem. Plant ecologist Kristín Svavarsdóttir told RÚV that the government needs to develop a strategy to combat invasive species and is particularly concerned about seeds that are inadvertently brought into the country in imported soil.

Kristín says that this problem of invasive species dispersing around areas where soil importation is highest—i.e. cities and towns where there’s a lot of agriculture—is well-known in other countries and it’s the job of the Ministry of the Environment to create a policy to combat this phenomenon in Iceland. “This is classified as one of the largest environmental issues in the world, but we’ve completely ignored it,” she remarked.

The debate always revolves around individual species, Kristín continued, but she believes that the focus should be much broader. “Of course, we need to look at individual species but we also need to set rules and working methods both regarding how we’re going to prevent this and [how to] be aware of what species we’re bringing in—that’s to say intentionally, although of course there will also be species coming in unintentionally, in soil for instance. We’re kind of just letting things happen. It’s carelessness, pure and simple.”

Airport Reopens in Siglufjörður

The airport in the North Iceland village of Siglufjörður has reopened after a four-year closure, RÚVreports. Gunnar Birgisson, mayor of Fjallabyggð municipality which Siglufjörður is a part of, says that while the airport may indeed support tourism, its primary purpose in the municipality is to ease access to medical services. “…[I]t gives the residents a sense of security to have the airport open.”

For the time being, the airport will not be serviced by regularly scheduled flights. “…Siglufjörður has now been recognized as a landing site where people can land at their own risk. We’ve marked the landing strip and all that, but we don’t have any signal, airport management, or anything like that.”

As there’s no control tower at the airport, people intending to land in Siglufjörður will need to contact Gunnar or the town engineer to confirm it is safe to land.

Cloudiest Summer on Record for Reykjavík

Reykjavík has only had 343.7 hours of sunshine this summer, making it the grayest summer on record for the city, RÚV reports. The data comes from meteorologist Trausti Jónsson.

Since April 19th, known as the first day of summer and celebrated as a national holiday in Iceland, a significant shift in the weather has led to a cooler and cloudier summer than usual, Trausti explains. Although the summers of 1913, 1914, and 1984 come close in how little the sun showed itself, 2018 so far sets a record for Reykjavík. The capital has also broken the previous record for summer precipitation, which has reached over 300 millimetres (11.8in) this season.

Not all of Iceland is dreary this summer, however – the Eastfjords have been experiencing higher than average temperatures and a fair share of sunny days.

Puffin Chicks Starving in Iceland

Thousands of puffin chicks, or pufflings, have died of starvation in Heimaey this summer, RÚV reports. The same is occurring in some of the bird’s traditional breeding grounds in Norway and the UK. A team of UK researchers is investigating the phenomenon, in which global warming and fishing appear to be the causes.

The researchers, alongside experts across Europe, are studying puffin colonies in Grímsey, North Iceland, the Westman Islands, South Iceland, as well as Røst island in Norway and Skomer island off the coast of Wales. Puffin stocks are have declined dramatically in some of these areas, and global warming appears to be the main cause. Scientists believe that rising ocean temperatures are forcing cold-water fish species further north, making them scarce in seabirds’ traditional breeding grounds. Trawling of small fish such as sprats and sand eels, the main source of food for puffins, has further diminished their stocks.

Heimaey, in the Westman Islands, is home to the largest puffin colony in the world. It has seen thousands of puffling deaths this summer. “Some years the eggs don’t hatch, and the chicks only survive for a short time. I was in the Westman islands last week, for example, and we found a whole lot of tiny, newly-hatched pufflings there which had most likely died of starvation,” recounted Dr. Annette Fayet, puffin specialist from the University of Oxford in an interview with RÚV. Fayet is in Iceland collaborating with local researchers to tag puffins and set up cameras in order to identify what fish they are feeding to their chicks.

Although puffins are on the list of endangered species, they are still hunted for their meat in Iceland. Fayet says the practice is unjustifiable considering the bird’s population decline, adding that without immediate protective measures, the puffin, alongside many other seabirds, will face extinction.