The area surrounding Snæfellsjökull glacier is one of Iceland’s most beautiful. Snæfellsjökull National Park is dominated by the glacier, which sits at a height of 1 446m atop a 700 000-year-old stratovolcano. Diverse birdlife, seals dozing on black sand beaches, fantastic natural rock formations along with beautiful caves hidden in lava fields – there’s no question that such a natural treasure should be protected at all costs. Luckily, the economic gains seem to outweigh the losses – at least according to Finnish researcher Jukka Siltanen’s work. The natural pearl of Snæfellsjökull has proven to be a gem of sorts for the Icelandic economy.
Siltanen has studied the economic impact of Snæfellsjökull National Park and is currently leading a research project which aims to study other nature reserves and parks in Iceland. The raw numbers are impressive for Snæfellsjökull National Park as the economic impact to cost ratio is 45:1, that is to say the money spent on the park is returned 45-fold into the Icelandic economy. The tax numbers alone are enough to justify all expenses, as the tax income from Snæfellsjökull National Park is ten times higher than the amount spent on the park. In total, the park creates revenue of ISK 3.9 billion ($36.4 million/€31 million) as well as contributing to creating approximately 700 jobs.
Siltanen credits this economic impact mostly to foreign travellers. “The main reason is of course that over 90% of the visitors are foreign tourists who spend quite a lot of money on various services (tours, guides, rental cars, food, accommodation, etc.) connected to the park visits. In Finland, in comparison, most of the visitors to most national parks are domestic and many visit parks near their homes thus using only a fraction of the services. Also, the number of visitors in the three national parks in Iceland is almost the same as in Finland for 39 national parks. That creates quite a different situation for visitor-based income vs. park management costs.”
The Icelandic highlands
The idea of making the whole of the Icelandic highlands one national park has recently surfaced. “I think it’s a very important initiative. The Central Highland is one of Europe’s largest remaining wilderness areas, and it deserves a national framework for protection and development,” Siltanen explains. “There are quite a lot of different ideas for its development in terms of tourism, access, and power generation, for example, and I think these different issues should be looked at through one comprehensive management plan to make sure that Iceland doesn’t inadvertently lose something very valuable.” A national park is not just created out of nothing, there are certain things that need to be ensured before creating one, “I want to highlight the need to connect with people on a personal level on why it’s being done. There needs to be more communication about the initiative as there are still a lot of misunderstandings and incorrect information in people’s minds.”
Only 4% of the total visitors to the Snæfellsjökull National Park are domestic. Are Icelanders missing out on the beauty of our national parks? “I don’t think so. I believe many Icelanders feel at the moment that the tourist hot spots in the national parks are quite crowded, but there are other places in the national parks and protected areas that are not as crowded and still represent the beauty and solitude of the land to Icelanders. I actually have a feeling that the proposed Central Highland national park represents the core values Icelanders associate with the highlands and nature perhaps even more than the current national parks – in that sense I think we are at an exciting new beginning,” Siltanen claims.
Nature vs. tourism
The creation of a national park can lead to a certain level of protection which ensures that visitors can enjoy nature better, according to Siltanen. “Naturally, tourism can have a degrading effect on nature; we’ve seen this in many places in Iceland already in terms of litter, trail erosion, loss of vegetation, tire tracks where there shouldn’t be and so on. But protection of an area ensures that the area is managed in terms of access, prevention of damage, monitoring and restoration if needed. There is also a clear authority to make the decision to limit access if, for example, visitor numbers are unsustainable for the area in question.” For people who are worried that a national park in the highlands would limit their use of the land, Siltanen says that there’s no preset level of protection for national parks that has to be maintained everywhere. “The level of protection can vary a lot depending on the context. National parks can have zones that have different levels of protection due to sensitivity and protection requirements of different areas within the park. There are national parks which include entire towns with people and their livelihoods, for example Cairngorms National Park in Scotland that is home to 18 500 people – 43% of them employed in the visitor economy, by the way.”
The future of national parks
Are more national parks the answer for the future, both in terms of protecting nature and to foster economic growth? “There seems to be quite a lot of positive movement towards environmental protection now both in Iceland and globally, though sometimes I have a somewhat somber feeling that it is only happening because we see how rapidly the remaining nature and wildlife is being decimated around us. I think our understanding of different types of protected areas and reasons for protection has also greatly increased, allowing us to make smarter decisions about what and how to protect, and to what objective.” Siltanen continues, “New national parks are still being opened, and something that is perhaps becoming a trend in densely-built continental Europe (in contrast to Finland and Iceland) is a concept called rewilding, where areas that have been built up for people are being returned to a natural state and protected.”
To harness or to foster
The potential harnessing of Iceland’s natural resources has been a focal point of the national debate in recent years. Studies such as this one shed a new light on this seemingly never-ending debate. It appears that nature protection and nature-based tourism is a viable option compared to natural resource utilization. The creation and protection of natural parks is an economically strong alternative to harnessing the beauty of the country’s glacial rivers and high temperature geothermal areas.
All photos above by Golli.
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