Many visitors to Iceland may be surprised to know that some of the country’s most popular tourist sites are located on privately-owned land. Icelandic law ensures that the public can access sites of natural or historical significance, despite them being in private ownership. But all those visitors require infrastructure, both to protect the site itself and to attend to the visitors’ needs, and the state and local governments have a role to play. Icelandic authorities and private landowners share a duty to ensure accessibility, safety, and conservation at such sites, but the execution of these duties varies greatly from one tourist attraction to the next.
The volcanic crater lake Kerið lies in South Iceland, not far from the popular Golden Circle route. For years, tourists have stopped at the site in between their visits to Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss. In 2008, controversy erupted when Kerið’s landowners announced they would begin charging entry to the crater. Many locals considered it absurd to put a price tag on a natural site, believing it should remain accessible to all without a fee.
While the decision to charge entry was reversed due to the amount of backlash it received, a fee was eventually instituted at Kerið five years later, in 2013. At that time, CEO of Kerfélagið Gunnar O. Skaptason stated that the public perspective toward charging entry to natural sites had changed. “This is something that everyone has been waiting for, because this money will be used to improve the infrastructure around Kerið. So this is actually nature conservation.”
A glance at recent Google reviews of Kerið seems to support Gunnar’s assertion: most mention the beauty of the site but not the entry fee. One reviewer that does mention the cost writes that it’s “cheaper than a coffee.” Another states: “I didn’t mind paying for entrance, because I see what they do with maintenance of the trail.” Despite collecting fees since 2013, Kerið’s owners have yet to install a public washroom at the site. This could be due to zoning permits: RÚV reported in 2019 that Kerfélagið had received permission to build more services at the site, but the pandemic has likely delayed construction.
In a way, entrance fees were the instigator for the Icelandic state’s purchase of the Geysir geothermal area. Originally owned by a farmer, the area was sold to James Craig, a whiskey distiller and future Prime Minister of Ireland, in the 1890s. Craig was the first to charge visitors an entrance fee to the site, until he relinquished ownership to a friend, who dropped the fees. The land changed hands a few times, until it was given to the Icelandic state by film director Sigurður Jónasson in 1935. That was only the geothermal site itself, however: the surrounding land still belonged to private individuals.
In 2016, after landowners attempted (in vain) to institute an entry fee once again, the state decided to acquire the surrounding land. Owners stated that they were forced to sell the land under threat of expropriation. It wasn’t until 2020 that the site was officially protected.
Long under most tourists’ radar, Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon in South Iceland exploded in popularity after it was featured in a Justin Bieber music video in 2015. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of visitors to the canyon doubled. The existing dirt trails were turned to mud by the increased foot traffic; visitors stepped further and further off the paths, causing damage to the surrounding flora. The site has been closed for weeks at the time in recent years to allow the flora to recover.
The canyon and surrounding area are privately owned. One of the properties, encompassing some 315 hectares, was put up for sale six years ago. In June 2022, Icelandic media outlets reported that a buyer had been found. As Fjaðrárgljúfur is on the Nature Conservation Register, the state had pre-emptive purchase rights to the land. This means that if they chose to do so, authorities could step in and take over the purchase. In the case of Fjaðrárgljúfur, the government decided not to step in, but the Environment Minister signed an agreement with the to-be landowner that is expected to ensure the canyon’s protection.
Until now, no admission or parking fees have been charged at the canyon, but a government notice implied that a parking fee may be implemented, adding that “the collection and disposition of fees that may be charged for the parking of motor vehicles shall be in its entirety used to develop services, operations, and infrastructure for those travelling in the area.”
If there is one issue that stands above all others at Iceland’s tourist sites, it is undoubtedly safety. The country’s climate and natural features can create danger that visitors may not expect or be prepared for. That has been the case at one of South Iceland’s most-visited sites, Reynisfjara black sand beach. While the site’s basalt rock formations and black pebbles draw visitors in droves, its dangerous sneaker waves have claimed several lives, despite extensive signage warning of their danger. What makes managing the site even more challenging is that authorities must negotiate with not just one, but several landowners at the site.
Reynisfjara landowners and local authorities have been discussing installing additional safety infrastructure at the beach, such as a flashing light and a gate that could be closed when conditions were particularly dangerous. Both parties have accused the other of delaying such developments. Jónas Guðmundsson, a project manager at Iceland’s search and rescue organisation ICE-SAR accused some landowners at the site of hindering efforts to set up a warning system. One representative of the landowners denied the accusations, but expressed doubt about the effectiveness of the proposed equipment, asking if police officers stationed at the site had not been able to prevent tourists from approaching the waves “how was a gate supposed to do it?” Landowners say a government committee set up years ago has dragged its feet on the issue.
It’s clear that the more parties are involved in the decision-making process, the more cumbersome the process of installing necessary infrastructure, even when safety is at stake. The installation of a flashing warning light at Reynisfjara has since been approved by all parties, but not before another tourist death occurred at the site last June.
Iceland is volcanically active, meaning that many sites have the potential to become tourist attractions overnight; and magma does not distinguish between private and public land. When the Fagradalsfjall eruption began in March 2021, locals (and international visitors, once pandemic restrictions allowed), streamed to the Reykjanes peninsula to witness the spectacle with their own eyes.
The eruption occurred on private land, roughly a two-hour hike from the nearest road. It goes without saying that there were neither washrooms at the site nor a place to park – minimal infrastructure that needed to be ensured in order to preserve the surrounding environment. In May 2021, after clearing unpaved lots and installing port-a-potties at the trailhead, landowners instituted a parking fee of ISK 1.000, stating that proceeds would go toward building up infrastructure in the area. The government also agreed to contribute finances toward building up necessary services at the site. Tension arose, however, when the lot’s owners announced that they would be willing to sell the property – and the brand-new volcano – for the right price. Government representatives stated they would protect public access to the site and that investing public funds was out of the question if any new owners planned to operate the site for profit.
Eruptions pose huge planning challenges for landowners and authorities: they are difficult to predict, attract huge numbers, involve significant danger, and constantly change the very landscape around them. Hiking trails at the Fagradalsfjall eruption, for example, were regularly closed or modified as they were cut off by lava. The eruption stopped in September 2021, and visitor numbers slowed down to a trickle. All development plans at the site came to a halt.
Lack of policy?
If there is anything the above stories show, it is that Iceland’s government lacks a cohesive policy when it comes to entry fees, access, and funding of necessary infrastructure at popular tourist sites. Decisions appear to be made on a case-by-case basis, and are largely reactionary: infrastructure is not created in anticipation of increased traffic, but only once that traffic is already straining the limits of the site in question.
The issues that affect the operation of tourist sites in private ownership touch on larger issues connected to land ownership in Iceland in general. In recent years, such discussions have touched on the consolidation of properties, for example, which would give wealthy individuals disproportionate control over natural resources in Iceland. Government policy may need to be clarified in regards to the responsibilities of landowners, particularly when it comes to natural resources or natural wonders located on their property.
While Icelanders, and Icelandic authorities, have a sense that most, if not all, natural sites should remain free and accessible to all, they are also not opposed to charging fees in exchange for services, particularly if the funds collected go toward nature conservation and necessary infrastructure. This type of administration has been successful at sites like Víðgelmir cave, where private owners have both increased access to the site and ensured it is well-conserved. Fees don’t seem to deter foreign tourists or locals from visiting sites: and likely seem minor compared to the cost of their accommodation, dinner, or rental car. In fact, travellers often seem happy to take part in protecting the areas they are visiting.