This article originally appeared in The Circle: Sustainable Development Goals. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.
Iceland’s natural beauty has always attracted travelers from around the world. But over the past eight years, the number of people coming to see its breathtaking waterfalls, geysers, volcanoes and glaciers has more than quadrupled. Almost 1.8 million people now visit Iceland each year—a number five times the population of the small Arctic country. This surge has forced Iceland to look for ways to protect the environment and charm that attracts travelers. In doing so, it is becoming a leader in sustainable tourism.
LAST YEAR, Iceland’s first lady, Ms. Eliza Jean Reid, was appointed the first UN special ambassador for tourism and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We spoke to Iceland’s Canadian-born first lady about why she thinks promoting a more sustainable form of tourism is critical—not just for Iceland, but for other countries around the world—and how tourism can play a part in achieving the SDGs.
Why do you think Arctic countries like Iceland need to make sustainable tourism a priority?
Northern locations’ natural ecosystems are particularly fragile—and in smaller communities, both positive and negative changes in tourism may be felt more acutely. The Arctic also has different infrastructure than some travellers might be used to. Like all places with unique natural environments and populations—and isn’t that most places?—we should be mindful of our impact and work to increase sustainability.
How are you using your position as Iceland’s first lady—and now the UN World Tourism Organization’s special ambassador for tourism and the SDGs—to promote sustainable tourism?
I have been an active traveller since long before becoming first lady, and I’ve always tried to enjoy travel in a sustainable way. It’s increasingly easy to travel, which is a good thing, but at the same time we need to be aware of the impact our actions are having on our environment. Now that I’m first lady, I try to promote sustainable tourism by speaking at relevant events, or when I’m on state visits.
How has Iceland tried to make its tourism industry more sustainable?
I should emphasize that I do not speak on behalf of the Icelandic government. My opinions and impressions are my own. But in my view, the rapid growth in the number of tourists coming to Iceland in the past decade has put increased pressure on both its natural environment and infrastructure. Government ministries and organizations like Promote Iceland have responded by putting great emphasis on increasing tourism in a sustainable way. Governments, private corporations, municipalities and land owners are all involved in discussions about the future of the industry. Tourism is expected to grow at a less rapid pace in coming years, which will allow the country some time to catch up and work even more on sustainability.
What role do you think governments, at all levels, need to play in promoting and fostering sustainable tourism?
Governments do play a crucial role in this area—not only national governments, but municipalities too. They can help create strategies for sustainable tourism, nature conservation, infrastructure investment, policing, promotion and providing information, all in cooperation with industry and local communities.
Why do you personally support sustainable tourism and meeting the SDGs?
I think the SDGs are an excellent set of guidelines to which individuals, communities and nations can aspire. But it will take concerted effort to achieve them. Because tourism helps so much to increase communication between peoples, finding ways to improve and grow this field in a sustainable way will help achieve these goals. I hope that all of us will get to know the SDGs and support them, because we are all residents of this planet and hopefully we want to leave it in good condition for future generations—not just our environment, but our societies and cultures too.