How to strike harmony between clean energy and nature-based tourism

Ingólfsdótti, A. H., G. Þ. Gunnarsdóttir. 2020. Tourism as a tool for nature conservation? Conflicting interests between renewable energy projects and wilderness protection in Iceland. Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism. 100276. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jort.2019.100276

Photo by author

Like many folks, I’ve been feeling the travel bug these past few months. Although staying home is the right move for now, I am beyond excited to get back to traveling. Looking back at pictures from my trip to Iceland 4 years ago provided the inspiration for this post. As an environmentalist, I was thrilled to travel to Iceland and experience the epic natural areas, the food, the culture, and of course the sustainable lifestyle that is so common there. As a clean energy researcher, I cannot help but admire their renewable energy generation and decided to dedicate my piece to Icelandic renewable energy projects. A recent article by Ingólfsdótti and Gunnarsdóttir, which looked at clean energy construction and the natural areas of Iceland, fit perfectly into the theme of renewable energy and travel so I decided to explore their findings in this article.

The balance between nature conservation and energy projects in Iceland has been a challenge to achieve. The pristine nature and immersive natural experiences found across Iceland are commonly cited as some of the top reasons international tourists choose Iceland as their vacation destination. Many times, nature conservationists have used this fact to prohibit the construction of new energy projects in order to protect the wilderness and maintain this tourism draw. The authors of this paper, A. H. Ingólfsdótti and G. Þ. Gunnarsdóttir of Icelandic Tourism Research Centre, decided to examine the relationship between these parties, researching how nature conservationists, tourism, and energy projects have conflicting interests and try to determine how to best resolve these conflicts.

The draw of natural areas
Skógafoss – photo by author

Many destinations around the world boast beautiful nature and healthy wildlife as selling features, trying to attract tourists interested in a transformative experience of nature. For this reason, protecting the interests of tourists has been used as a justification for natural conservation projects. Maintaining that sense of untouched nature helps ensure that tourists return time and time again to witness these landscapes. Iceland boasts unique geologic features and a sense of untouched wilderness that international tourists find extremely attractive. Iceland has seen a dramatic increase in their tourism sector between 2010 and 2018. This increase in tourism and resulting economic growth has been great for the country but at the same time has become a challenge for promoting renewable energy development.

Renewable Energy

Iceland has been a leader in harnessing renewable energy. Geothermal and hydropower are staples in the Icelandic energy sector and, in the face of climate change, Iceland has become an inspiration for efficiency in renewable energy production and distribution. Geothermal and hydropower energy sources have significantly reduced the country’s greenhouse gas emissions because they do not rely on burning of fossil fuels. However, there are still significant environmental consequences associated with these energy sources, including disruption to natural areas, especially in the highlands of Iceland where human development is limited.

Maintaining unspoiled natural areas across Iceland is important for tourism because Iceland remains one of the last parts of Europe to be able to offer such transformative natural experiences to their visitors. However, as the demand for renewable energy grows, Iceland and other countries around the world are feeling the pressure to move even further away from the use of fossil fuels.

Methods

To better quantify and understand the relationship between tourism, wilderness protection, and renewable energy development, Ingólfsdótti and Gunnarsdóttir utilized two different sources of information. One resource was public discourse from parliamentary discussions about the development of new energy projects and the second were results from studies focusing on tourism experiences and attitudes towards energy structures in wilderness areas.

Downtown Reykjavik – photo by author

Ingólfsdótti and Gunnarsdóttir found that tourists generally reacted poorly to the idea of construction of energy projects in areas they were traveling to. The main reason for this negative response focused on the idea that energy structures are an eyesore and the energy production on site took away from the experience of visiting untouched nature. However, when tourists were asked to reflect on their experience in natural areas where a power plant already existed, they reported not being bothered by the presence of the energy-related structure. The authors concluded that the design of the power plant could be an explanation for this discrepancy and if the plant is inconspicuous in the landscape, the tourists did not seem affected by its presence. The authors concluded from this study that using natural areas for energy production and continuing nature-based tourism can occur simultaneously and clean energy construction does not necessarily result in a loss of tourism-related economic value in the area, especially if care is taken for the design and placement of an energy plant.

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Jessica Wright

Jessica Wright

I am a fourth year PhD. student in earth sciences at Boston University in the Department of Earth and Environment. My research focuses on urban infrastructure systems and energy transition policy, specifically focusing on the role of natural gas. I completed my undergraduate studies at Connecticut College in Biology and have worked with a lot of non-profits in and around the Greater Boston area on energy transition policy-making. I love to swim, do yoga, and travel!

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