The #1 Reason People Travel to Iceland + 3 Ways You Can Help Protect Icelandic Nature as a Tourist
It's not a secret. Many people want to visit Iceland – and many do.
From 1996 until today, the number of yearly visitor arrivals multiplied by a factor of 10. In the year 1996 about 200,000 tourist arrivals were registered. In 2017, for the first time, over 2 million arrivals were recorded within one year. ,
This calls for responsible, sustainable and educated travels. When planning and booking your trip, integrate as many sustainability and educational components as possible. This podcast episode / blog article helps you to get started with your responsible and conscious Iceland adventure.
Hello and welcome, I’m Daniela and this is the Science of Travel Blog + Podcast! This blog/podcast combines geosciences, sustainable and educated traveling. We talk about our beautiful planet Earth as a whole and specifically about landscape formation & Earth surface processes, spectacular travel destinations and other topics as they relate to nature and living a good life in general. The star of the show this time is: Iceland 🇮🇸.
In this article / episode you'll find out
- the #1 reason people want to travel to Iceland
- 3 ways you can help to protect Icelandic nature
- 7 ways you can educate yourself about Icelandic nature and geology
Later, James Cresswell, a geologist who guides geology tours and owns a geotourism company, will join me. He tells us about his geotours to Iceland. He shares:
- why he thinks Iceland is special
- what the best time to travel to Iceland is to avoid crowded and crowding places
- what to pack for an Iceland trip
- what his favorite geosites in Iceland are
- what photography spots he recommends
- and more ;)
Read transcript below or listen to the podcast episode
Iceland's Geological Setting
Iceland is an island that is located on the northern hemisphere in the North Atlantic Ocean, halfway between Greenland and Europe. With its 24-20 million years Iceland is a geologically young island, considering Earth is 4.56 billion years old. Iceland is placed in a unique geological setting: at the junction of a divergent plate boundary on the one hand, and a magmatic hotspot on the other. Divergent plate boundaries are associated with mid-ocean ridges. These are huge underwater mountain chains. The mid-ocean ridge that exists where Iceland is located is called Mid-Atlantic Ridge. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the geology in this podcast, as I want to make a detailed explainer-video about it. Just know this: the tectonic setting we can see in Iceland is unique. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge rises above sea level on Iceland due to the existence of a buoyant hotspot beneath. This hotspot pushes the plate boundary, including the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, upwards into the atmosphere where Iceland is located. This can’t be seen anywhere else on any land surface on Earth, because mid-ocean ridges (huge underwater mountain chains) are, as the name implies, usually deep beneath the ocean surface. ,,
Iceland’s landscapes are the result of precisely this exceptional geological setting. But glaciers shape and carve its surface too, due to Iceland's geographical position just adjacent to the polar circle. Snow can fall, accumulate and glaciers can form. During the peak time of the last cold phase in the current ice age, about 21,000 years ago, the whole of Iceland was covered with an ice sheet with an average thickness of 940 meters or 3,000 feet and a maximum elevation of 2,000 m or 6,500 feet.  Today, Iceland has six ice caps that are the remnants of this most recent ice sheet. About 10 % of Iceland's surface area are covered by glaciers. 
Despite Iceland’s breathtaking nature, it has long been off the travel radar of many people. Only recently did Iceland become interesting to the mainstream traveler. With the start of the 21st century, the arrival of foreign tourists via air and sea was taken to a new level. Until the year 2000, less than 300,000 tourists arrived yearly. But at the turn of the century, this number continued to climb. In 2008, international arrivals for the first time exceeded 500,000 per year. And in 2015 the million-arrivals mark was reached and in 2017, over 2 million arrivals were registered for the first time. In 2018 and 2019, over 2 million arrivals per year were registered as well. ,
The #1 Reason People Travel to Iceland
The top reason why people want to visit Iceland is its nature. In a survey conducted by the Icelandic Tourist Board between July 2017 and June 2018, 92,4 % of all surveyed visitors said that they came to Iceland because of the nature or a particular natural feature. 
Specifically, those people said what inspired them to book a trip to Iceland were Northern Lights, unspoiled or untouched nature, beautiful nature, geysers, geothermal areas, uniqueness and diversity, landscape and scenery, glaciers, natural baths, waterfalls and glacier lagoons and icebergs. 
All these natural features are the result of Iceland’s geological setting and its geographical location.
Interestingly, this study also examined the Icelandic population’s response to the impacts of tourism and foreign travelers to Iceland. 75 % (3 out of 4 surveyed Icelanders) of the surveyed local population say that the burden of tourists and the pressure on Icelandic nature is too great. However, in almost all other regards, the attitude towards tourists is positive overall. The Icelandic population appreciates the jobs and services tourism creates and they find that tourists increase the Icelander’s interest in Icelandic nature and their own culture. Many belief that tourists have had a positive impact on Iceland’s society. 
Iceland has a become a tourist magnet mostly due to its stunning natural beauty. Its natural beauty in turn is a result of the geological processes and its geographical location.
With this background, isn’t it a great idea to learn as much as we can about Iceland, when we want to visit Iceland?
How can we help this beautiful country and this beautiful nature?
How can we help to ease the pressure on Icelandic nature as a tourist?
3 Ways You Can Help to Protect Icelandic Nature as a Tourist
There are several things you can do, but I’d like to focus on three very simple things.
1. Be aware that you are a guest.
With that awareness comes a desire to be kind, respectful and present. With being conscious that you are a guest, a visitor, there is a number of things you can do to travel better and to help relieve the stress that tourism puts on Iceland and especially its nature.
2. Take the Icelandic Pledge.
To do this go to pledge.visiticeland.com (clickable link at the end of this article, show notes 1). It’s free and takes about 30 seconds. I tried it out myself!
By the way, on the visiticeland.com website (clickable link at the end of this article, show notes 2) there are many helpful and insightful resources for your Iceland trip.
For example, there is a tool (show notes 3) that shows you the visitor numbers, most visited hour, and visits per month for popular sightseeing spots. This way, you can plan your trip according to how many people are at your desired site. This helps you avoid busy times, peak times and peak seasons, and it helps to prevent over-crowding sites. This is good for nature and for your own visitor experience!
There also is a resource (show notes 4) about sustainable traveling that gives you even more ideas on how to tread lightly in Iceland. For example they encourage you to drink the Icelandic tap water which is one of the purest tap waters in the world. This helps to save plastic water bottles, as you can simply refill a reusable bottle! All clickable links are in the show notes below.
By the way: if you want to have a checklist that lists more than 20 things you can do to travel sustainably and respectfully, then download my Sustainable Travel Checklist! It’s been downloaded over 200 times. I hope you find it helpful as well!
3. Educate yourself.
When we educate ourselves about our travel destination, we deepen our connection with it. And when we deepen our connection with something or someone, we care for it even more than we did before. And this is what is ultimately required of every tourist. To care for the destination we visit. Leaving a place as we found it or even better is our responsibility as tourists.
And by educating yourself I don’t mean the stuff we do while planning and booking a trip. We superficially learn about a place when we do that. Of course, we have to know where we want to go and what we want to do.
But by education yourself I mean: go beyond that and go deeper. Learn about the history, culture, the geology, the nature, the landscapes, or the language of your destination, in this case of Iceland. Pick your favorite topic, whatever floats your boat, or learn about all aspects to get a complete picture. Most of the time these aspects, the geology, the nature, the history, the culture, the landscapes, the language, are interrelated anyhow.
7 Ways to Educate Yourself about Iceland
I want to give you 7 ideas on how you could educate yourself about Iceland:
1. Do your own reading and research.
This could be stressful and tedious, because there’s so much out there and it’s hard to get your head wrapped around it all. But if you’re into reading and researching a lot yourself, go for it! It is really rewarding.
2. Ask me to research for you
... or ask any general and specific questions you have that are related to the geology. I’ll do my best to support you with my expertise and knowledge. If you’re interested in this kind of service, click the link in the show notes (5) to get in touch.
3. Watch the free video series
about The Geology of Iceland For Everyone that was put together by geologist Professor Agust Gudmundsson (show notes 6). He also wrote a book, a GeoGuide, titled The Glorious Geology of Iceland’s Golden Circle. I’ll put the links in the show notes (7).
But one heads up: Don’t believe him when he explains the difference between Pāhoehoe and ʻAʻā lava. He’s wrong there, these types of lava don’t differ in mineral composition but in the gas content!
4. Follow educational accounts on social media.
There is a great account of a geologist, she also is a volcanologist, called @Geology_with_Helga (show notes 8).
5. Follow (other) locals.
on social media or Youtube or read their blogs. This gives you a really great insight into Icelandic life and the people, the locals, which is very rewarding.
6. Book day tours in Iceland or visit geoparks.
Book day tours in Iceland with geologists, or naturalists or visit Iceland's two UNESCO Geoparks: the Katla UNESCO Global Geopark or the Reykjanes UNESCO Global Geopark (show notes 9+10).
7. Go on a multiple-day geology trip.
If you want to go all in, go on an extended geology tour with a geologist, for example with the geotourism company GeoWorld Travel. It’s run by James Cresswell. James is a geologist and founder and owner of GeoWorld Travel. This is a tour operator that specializes in geology trips. He takes travel groups to geologically interesting destinations all around the world. One of those destinations is Iceland! James will tell us more about his tour, that he calls “The Vulcanologist's Dream”, right now. Whether you’re a vulcanologist, professional or hobby geologist or layman doesn’t matter. James’ tours are for everyone. (show notes 11-13).
With that being said, give it up for James!
Hello again, James. Tell us in your own words, why do you think Iceland is so special?
Hello again, Daniela. Well as you have told us, Iceland is an extraordinary country, with wonderful volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls. And huge numbers of tourists travel to Iceland each year to see these things. But the reason why these things exist, the reason why you've got this wonderful landscape is because it actually has an extraordinary geological story.
Just imagine you're in a subpolar ocean and then there's actually the mid-ocean ridge, which should be thousands of meters beneath the sea. Because it's migrated over a hotspot it's been uplifted and pushed above the surface of the ocean. So you've now got the ocean’s mid-ocean ridge above the land and all its associated volcanoes. And because the hotspot pushes it up quite high and you're in a subpolar location it snows on the top. It makes glaciers. And then, because there's glaciers, there's also melts and waterfalls. So all these extraordinary sceneries have got to do with this unique geological story. Nowhere else in the world has a mid-ocean ridge being pushed up above the surface. Then you combine that with its subpolar location, and you have Iceland. This just incredible, wonderful place.
Sounds wonderful. No wonder you travel there. So during your Iceland trip, what's your itinerary? I think you do the Ring Road, right?
Yes, it's essentially the Ring Road in an anti-clockwise direction, which is what many, many tourists would do, but it [the itinerary] has two important deviations off the ring road. We head out to the Westman Islands where we can see this wonderful story where they Eldfell volcano erupted in 1973 (show notes 14) and buried part of the town in lava. So that's a huge, wonderful human story there. So that's a sidetrack. And another sidetrack is a trip into Askja volcano, which is right in the interior of Iceland, and right near the middle of Iceland. We have to journey through this desert environment. That's just unlike anywhere else in Europe. That’s a real adventure, having to ford deep rivers and that type of thing, in a specially modified vehicle. So the Ring Road with these two excursions off it.
Nice. And how much hiking do you do?
There's not much hiking, because nearly every way the car can just park directly at the geological stop.
Okay. Yeah, that's great. And how long is your entire trip? How long does it take?
The trip is a nine days and eight nights.
Why do you go there in September? Is there a specific reason why you do that or is it just because it's perfect for your personal schedule?
No, there's a specific reason. Because we like to go into the interior of Iceland, the only season, the only time we can do that, is from mid-June to mid-September. The rest of the year it snows and the roads are closed. And then we choose September rather than in July and August because tourism has really boomed in Iceland in the last 20 years. Actually, it can get pretty crowded now, and by mid-September it's quietening off. It's just at the end of the high season. And so we find that it's a better time to go, it’s a bit less crowded.
That's amazing. That's a great reason because I told the audience before that to lessen the pressure on Iceland's nature and environment, it's advisable to travel there when the high season has passed. So that's a great reason. Yeah. And I think the climate is still pleasant, right?
Yeah. I mean, the temperature would probably be in the low teens centigrade around the coast. And when we travel into the Askja, in the Highlands, well then it could even snow on you and be cold. But on the coastal areas, it might be, say, 12 degrees [°C], is quite comfortable.
Yeah. So they need to pack a lot of warm clothes as well.
Yeah. I mean, the thing is, pack layers. I mean, you can get a lot of rain in Iceland. So you want waterproof coats and trousers, a warm fleece or something and a shirt and a base layer. Because at that time of year [September], you could have quite a sunny day and it's just a t-shirt and a shirt. Or it could be that you have a cold snap, and you want to be wearing everything.
It's highly likely that in your week’s travel you're going to see all sorts of weathers, because Iceland is right in the Atlantic and all the weather is coming up the Atlantic Ocean, rather like the UK, actually, that has very changeable weather. Iceland has it even more than the UK, even bigger extremes. It can literally be sunny one minute and hailing and snowing the next minute. And it'd be sunny again. It’s change, change, change, change. So you have to be prepared for everything.
Yeah. That reminds me of the weather in Scotland.
It's like Scottish weather, but even worse and more extreme.
Yeah, exactly. Wow. Well, I've never been to Iceland. I haven't said that, I think, but it's an incredible geological destination with all sorts of amazing geology locations and features. So what is your favorite geological location in Iceland?
Well, it's a tricky one because there's so many places you could choose. Perhaps this is a bit of a clichéd answer because I'm going to say Þingvellir (Thingvellir), which is a world heritage site. And it's also where Iceland's first parliament was. It's also one of the most visited places in Iceland. So why have I chosen that? Well, it is actually a place where you can walk down into the spreading plate boundary. You've got literally a cliff on one side of you that is North America, and you're now coming down into a rift valley. And Europe is just a few miles away and we drive over there and touch that as well. And it's literally the very best place in the world to see where two plates are pulling apart. So I mentioned before, what's so unique about Iceland is there's a mid-ocean ridge above the surface and here you really feel like you’re in it. It is incredible. It is busy with tourists, but the reason why is because it is such a fantastic site and really a must-see site that you must go to.
Yeah. What does it feel like? Can you put it into words? Like standing on the, or inside the ridge, it's amazing. I get goosebumps.
It makes you feel small, and you can really see Earth’s presence there. And there is a feeling about the place and it's probably no coincidence that the actual Vikings made their first parliament in there, because obviously they didn't know about the geology, but they could sense it was a special place. There's something really extraordinary about it.
Another special place as well is Askja. And I've mentioned earlier on. Askja is really off the beaten track and not that many tourists will visit there. So, I’m choosing a place that's very visited and a place that's not visited. And with Askja, it actually is a 12-hour roundtrip to get to this volcano. You’ve got to pass through hours and hours and hours of vast empty desert. Just the scale and the size of the space is completely humbling. And then you get to this enormous volcano that has got three different nested calderas in it, with one caldera that actually formed in the human lifetime, so it just formed recently. It feels otherworldly, like another planet. In fact, NASA astronauts have been there to do training. It’s just such a contrast with the parts of the planet where cities are and farms are, just to be having volcanic ash and pumice, just going on for hour after hour. Just to be so desolate. That’s a really, really special “wow” place to go.
So that’s another must-see stop and maybe that is my favorite more than thing that Þingvellir (Thingvellir). Þingvellir (Thingvellir) you have to go because you're in the plate boundary. But there's lots of other people there as well, but Askja that's a real “wow”.
Wow. Nice. Well, thank you for sharing that. What I think is so amazing is that: you said, it feels otherworldly, like another planet, but I think precisely this is what is so spectacular: that it is our planet. That's so mind-boggling.
And it feels like another planet compared to what we're used to of course. Because we’re all used to the cities or the farming communities that we live in, where people have modified everything. That’s [Askja] a place unmodified by man. And that’s how the planet naturally would have been, unmodified by man, but it is rare that you go to a place where you don't see the effects of man all around you.
Yeah. Iceland is wild, right?
It feels wild. Yeah. I know a lot of people like to take photographs on their tour or on their trip, in their vacation. And do you have any tips or advice or a personal favorite spot to take photographs? Because you are a photographer yourself.
Iceland is a country of photographic superlatives. I mean, you just look on Instagram and there's so many photos of all the waterfalls, volcanoes, geysers, around every corner. There's a landscape photo just there to be had. You go to Iceland, and you take thousands of pictures. So, it’s really quite hard to narrow things down.
Again, perhaps this answer's a bit of a cliché, because this place is popular with lots of people. But there's a place called Diamond Beach. What you have is the entrance to a glacial lagoon called Jökulsárlón. And icebergs are coming out from there into the sea and then getting washed back up onto the beach. Then you’ve got these crystal icebergs lying on the black sand beach with all the waves crashing and you can take some really artistic pictures. And many people do, but I'd say that is just a brilliant fun place.
But of course, if you happen to be in Iceland when a volcanic eruption was going on, and typically every four to five years there's a brand-new volcanic eruption, then that's the place to go. You want to be there and photographing the lava erupting out into the sky, because what's a cooler picture than doing that. Just so many places to take pictures, but I say Diamond Beach or an ongoing, active eruption would be my choices.
Nice. Speaking of ongoing eruption, last year the, I might butcher the word, Fagradalsjfall volcano erupted. You didn't by any chance see that right?
I did. We did. Yes. We actually flew out and started our tour a day early and we were incredibly lucky because the eruption had been quiet for the whole week. It then started erupting just that day that we were there and we went and saw it and we stood right by the lava. It then went quiet again for a week. It then erupted again for about five days and stopped completely and finished.
That was in September last year, right?
Yes, so we've arrived at the very end of the eruption and we stood right next to the lava, as hot as you could bear. It was incredible.
Have you ever witnessed a volcanic eruption this close before, or any volcanic eruption, any ongoing eruption?
Well, I have actually, because each year I also do a trip to Italy, and Stromboli is erupting all the time. I've climbed to the summit of Stromboli several times seeing the eruption there. In fact, my wife, Abby, that’s where I proposed to her, at the top of Stromboli volcano with the lava erupting behind.
Also, I’ve been to Hawai’i, like you have, and I've actually flown in a light aircraft over the Kīlauea when it was erupting.
But in Iceland was the closest I've been to the lava. I stood as close to it as I could bear with the heat being too hot for me to stand there.
That would have been my next question, because I think, and I saw it in the pictures, that people got really close. Yes. So, James, where can the listeners or readers, learn more about your trip and contact you if they want to join you?
The best way to do that is on my website: geoworldtravel.com (show notes 11) You can read all about the itineraries, all the trips, and there's a contact form there. You just click on the contact form and fill in your questions. It will send an email to us, and then we will reply to you by email and we can start talking by email. I'm also on social media, that's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You can message me through that as well. Also, there is the GeoWorld Travel Diaries blog. You could make contact there, but easiest way is probably just the website.
Yeah. And as always, I'll put all the links in the show notes, obviously. Thank you, James, again for this great conversation. I think it was very interesting and exciting. I can't wait to travel to Iceland someday. Thank you.
Thank you. It was really great to speak to you again. Thank you for your time.
You too. [laughs]
Educated tourism is a wonderful opportunity to explore Iceland’s geology in relation to its other natural and cultural heritages. I highly encourage you to make use of the proposed ideas in this podcast episode so that your Iceland trip will be a truly unforgettable, magical and a wonderful experience for all those involved, and experience that will relieve some of the pressure on Iceland’s nature.
My friend, thank you for spending your time with me today. Email is my favorite place to share new podcast episodes. Sign up for the STORIES OF EARTH newsletter via the link in the show notes if you want to stay in touch with me (I’d love to stay in touch with you). You’ll receive new podcast episodes in your inbox, updates on online courses at EarthyUniversity, exclusive offers that I only send out to my email list, I’ll share personal life anecdotes and thoughts on Earth and life and being a human on this extraordinary planet that I just don’t share anywhere else.
All the best to you 🇮🇸
About the author
Daniela is convinced that by gaining deep insights into planet Earth and travel destinations you’ll create meaningful, grounding and memorable life and travel experiences. She explains fundamental geological processes that form and shape landscapes and combines these insights with philosophical and philanthropical views in her online courses, articles, podcast and newsletter. She holds two bachelor's degrees in geosciences (B.Sc.) and business administration with tourism (B.A.). She is the owner and founder of EarthyMe, EarthyUniversity and the Science of Travel blog and podcast and the STORIES OF EARTH newsletter.
(None of these links are affiliate links. I provide these links simply as a resource for you.)
(0) Sustainable Travel Checklist
(1) The Icelandic Pledge ✋️ Visit Iceland
(3) Planning Tool: Visitor Numbers
(4) Sustainable travel in Iceland (visiticeland.com)
(5) Work With Daniela On-demand Service
(6) Youtube series: The Geology of Iceland For Everyone
(7) Book: The Glorious Geology of Iceland's Golden Circle
(8) Geology_With_Helga Instagram
(9) Katla UNESCO Global Geopark visitor website or UNESCO website
(10) Reykjanes UNESCO Global Geopark visitor website or UNESCO website
(11) GeoWorld Travel Iceland Tour
(12) GeoWorld Travel Instagram
(14) Westman Islands 1973 Eldfell eruption
 Numbers of foreign visitors | Icelandic Tourist Board (ferdamalastofa.is)
 Foreign Visitor Arrivals 1949-2021
 Denk et al. 2011: Introduction to the Nature and Geology of Iceland | SpringerLink
 Jovanelly 2020: Iceland | Geophysical Monograph Series (wiley.com)
 Eiríksson, J., Símonarson, L.A. (2021): A Brief Resumé of the Geology of Iceland | SpringerLink
 Hubbard et al. 2006: A modelling insight into the Icelandic Last Glacial Maximum ice sheet - ScienceDirect
 FERÐAÞJÓNUSTAN Í TÖLUM 2016 (ferdamalastofa.is)
Credit Banner image
Landmannalaugar, Iceland | Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash
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