Some of Iceland‘s most well-known tourist destinations are situated on privately held land, but public access to places of natural or historical significance is guaranteed by Icelandic law. Both private landowners and Icelandic authorities have a responsibility to maintain accessibility, safety, and conservation at these sites.
Visits to the famed ‘Golden Circle‘ route in South Iceland, which takes visitors to Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss, have long included a stop at the volcanic crater lake Kerið. When a fee (450 Isk, or 3€ at the time of writing) was introduced at Kerið in 2013, many people found it absurd because they thought a natural place should be open to everyone without restriction. The choice appears to have been well-received by visitors, despite the fact that the location is still devoid of public facilities after ten years—at least based on the thousands of reviews on Google.
Film director Sigurður Jónasson donated the geothermal property around Geysir to the Icelandic state in 1935, after it had previously been owned by a farmer and then sold to whisky distiller and future Irish prime minister James Craig (1890s). It should be noted that James Craig was the original person to charge admission to Geysir; however, he later gave ownership of the business to a friend, who discontinued charging visitors. Before the state chose to purchase the surrounding area in 2016 and the landowners’ vain attempt to impose an admission charge that drove them to surrender their property under threat of expropriation, the land surrounding the geothermal site was still privately owned. Ultimately, the property received official protection in 2020.
The Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon in South Iceland saw an explosion in popularity after appearing in a Justin Bieber music video in 2015. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of visitors to the canyon doubled, causing harm to the surrounding vegetation: the place stayed closed for weeks to allow the flora to recover. The government had the prerogative to purchase the site, but ultimately chose not to do so (2016), therefore the canyon and its environs are privately held even though they are listed on the “Nature Conservation Register.” The prospective landowner and the Environment Minister inked a deal that should guarantee the canyon’s preservation. The canyon hasn’t charged entrance or parking fees up until now, but a government notification suggested that they might in the future and that the money raised would be “used to develop services, operations, and infrastructure for those travelling in the area.”
Thousands of tourists go to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in South Iceland because of its striking black pebbles and basalt rock formations. Sadly, despite plenty of warning signs about the site’s potential hazards, some fatalities have resulted from its killer waves. Negotiating with many landowners at the site adds another layer of difficulty to the management of the property. Landowners in Reynisfjara and the local government have been talking about adding further safety features to the beach, like a gate that could be closed during really hazardous weather and a flashing light. Each side has accused the other of holding up these advancements. 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 in June 2022.
Visitors flocked to the Reykjanes peninsula in droves to see the spectacle when the Fagradalsfjall eruption broke out in March 2021. The eruption happened on private land, about two hours’ walk from the closest road, and lacked the bare minimum of infrastructure that was required to protect the surrounding ecosystem. Landowners imposed a 1.000 ISK parking tax in May 2021, indicating that the money raised would be used to improve the local infrastructure. Additionally, the government committed to providing funding for the expansion of essential services at the location. The owners then declared that they would sell the property—the newly formed volcano—for the ‘right price’. However, the eruption ceased in September 2021, and as visitor numbers began to decline, all future development plans at the location were shelved.
Iceland’s government lacks a clear policy on entry fees, access, and funding for tourist sites: decisions are made reactively, not anticipating increased traffic. Landowners’ responsibilities are unclear, especially regarding natural resources or wonders on their property. While most natural sites should remain free, Icelanders are open to charging fees for services, particularly for nature conservation and infrastructure. This approach has been successful at sites like Víðgelmir cave, where private owners have increased access and ensured well-conservation. Fees don’t deter tourists from visiting sites, and they often seem minor compared to accommodation, dinner, or rental cars.
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