Iceland has become a coveted travel destination, largely attributable to its gorgeous and dramatic landscapes, which inspire curiosity in people from around the world. But with a surge of new visitors, there have been recent reports of tourists getting into trouble in the country’s rugged terrain.
On 10 February, a tourist from China tragically died after he was swept into the sea at Reynisfjara beach. The man had reportedly been taking photographs at the time. On 18 February, a group of about 50 tourists became trapped on an iceberg at Jökulsárlón lagoon, and rescue crews were called to their aid.
With more tourism in the country, a new programme by Safetravel aims to help keep travellers safe while they enjoy what the island nation has to offer. Visitors can leave their travel plans at www.safetravel.is, and can even ask for monitoring, meaning Safetravel will check that they return from their trip at the right time. The website, run by the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue, also includes all the various weather warnings and alerts, so people can find information that may impact their trip, such as avalanche warnings or road closures.
Jónas Guðmundsson, the project manager with Safetravel, says that tourists deaths are very sad and get a lot of media attention, but have been occurring for years, with about five to ten deaths in tourism annually including locals and visitors. He did note that non-fatal accidents seem to be increasing.
Guðmundsson says that while 95% of tourists are travelling safely, the country’s huge increase in tourism numbers means issues do arise. This year, Iceland will see 1.5 million visitors, but just six years ago that number was only about half a million, he says, and the country is just lacking some infrastructure to accommodate the rapid increase. He said that, for example, Seljalandsfoss waterfall has parking spaces for maybe 30 cars and three buses, however on a normal day there are about 60 cars and ten buses.
“So, the danger there is not hiking around the waterfall because you actually can walk behind it. It is the danger of having a car hit you at the parking place”.
Much of the danger to travellers comes from the weather, explains Guðmundsson. Even sections of the main ring road, which connects most of the major tourist attractions, are closed at various times of the year due to the weather. In the winter, some travellers are not used to the cold and icy roads, says Guðmundsson. In the summertime, hikers can experience any kind of weather, including snow and need to have a variety of clothing layers to accommodate changing conditions. Some people are unaware of the dangers, but as Iceland generally draws in an adventurous type of traveller, he notes there are some tourists choose to ignore the risks.
This has an impact on search and rescue workers, as Guðmundsson says they respond to tourists who get stuck in the snow almost every day in the winter time. On average, search and rescue gets about two or three call outs a day.