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