Students Explore Ecotourism on Summer Trip to Iceland
From waterfalls to greenhouses to a glacial lagoon, students explored the far reaches of the Icelandic landscape, immersing themselves in the country’s culture and thriving ecotourism industry. This summer, two guides and 10 students embarked on the second-ever international trip with the Office of Outdoor Education, a partnership with the Office of Sustainability.
“Iceland has been on the top of my bucket list as a travel location for years because of the untouched wilderness,” says Matt Cole ’18 of why he wanted to participate. “This trip was the perfect opportunity to travel to Iceland and see a wide variety of all that the Icelandic wilderness and culture had to offer.”
Students completed an application process and attended pre-trip seminars before being accepted into this summer’s nine-day Iceland summer program. The trip itinerary was based on outdoor activities, with educational elements delving into sustainability and aspects of Iceland’s growing ecotourism industry.
“When we put a trip like this together, we want it to be thematic and intentional,” says Ryan Hammes, director of the Office of Outdoor Education and one of the trip’s two guides. “This one combined sustainability and the timely ecotourism topic with outdoor experiences in the natural environment.”
The group tackled hut-to-hut backpacking treks, as well as numerous day hikes. They visited a farm using greenhouses heated by geothermal to grow tomatoes, an exceptional feat, the group learned, for a country where growing such produce wouldn’t otherwise be possible because of the climate. They traveled to a horse farm and learned about the Icelandic horse, a significant part of the country’s culture. And they took a boat tour into a glacial lagoon. “In 60 years, that glacier will be completely melted, so it was a special part of our trip to get to see it,” says Ian Johnson, director of the Office of Sustainability, who co-led the trip with Hammes.
“Traveling and having the opportunity to explore the world is a wonderful experience we should all do at least once in our life, especially when it’s with a purpose,” says Jubilee Hernandez ’20 of why she wanted to be a part of the trip.
Hernandez and the rest of the group experienced all four season during their visit — from blue sky to snow. “What really makes a trip memorable is taking the time to truly explore the area, by going on walks, hikes, car rides, taking a ferry, as well as getting to know the others on the trip and making friends with strangers,” she says.
When talking about first impressions, Johnson says many students were surprised at how clean the country is, especially in the big cities and urban areas. Another theme students discussed was the environmental impact of tourism and how Iceland is working to balance tourism and preservation.
“We saw how all of these natural resources can be an asset and something to be protected; it’s very different than how we have our national park system set up,” Hammes says. “The students were doing personal reflection on how this place is different from what they call home.”
“I learned a lot about the geothermal process and what makes Iceland such a sustainable country, and that this geothermal energy potential could be possible in theoretically every country on Earth,” says Cole.
One-hundred-percent of Iceland’s energy comes from renewable resources — primarily geothermal and hydroelectric; a small percentage also comes from wind power. It’s also historically been a self-sufficient country, with many sustainable farming and fishing villages.
“Since 2010, tourism has been picking up, due to the nature, waterfall, geysers, hiking, black sand beaches, glaciers, puffins, whale watching; all of the things we experienced here,” says Johnson. “As a country, they’re struggling with it and how to [support tourism] responsibly.”
The group got a behind-the-scenes tour of a geothermal energy plant and saw how the “wastewater” from the plant spills into Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon.
“The thing that stands out to me weeks after the trip is the connections with the group of students as well as the leaders. I knew no one on the trip and would have never crossed paths with any of them at school, however we all became very close,” Cole says.
Building relationships with one another also empowered students to embrace opportunities to venture outside their comfort zones.
“Every day brought a new adventure spent outside,” Hernandez says of her experience. “Most challenging was the trekking. I absolutely hated my life when we were hiking, but I wouldn’t have changed any part of it. It was the slips, falls, and challenging paths that I remember the most.”
Hammes and Johnson say there was certainly enough student interest in the trip to offer a similar program in the future.