By Gracie Pearsall
Iceland’s natural beauty, breathtaking landscapes, and unique culture attract around one million tourists every year. After Iceland’s financial crisis in 2008, Iceland’s devalued currency and cheap flights made the country a “value destination,” which, combined with a post-volcanic eruption marketing effort in 2010, caused Iceland’s tourism industry to surge. Climate change has also recently caused a new sector to grow: Agriculture. As the planet warms, Iceland becomes more hospitable to agriculture, which has created a huge market for agritourism centered around Iceland’s livestock.
Iceland is an island nation in the Arctic Sea, and the livestock gene pool is similarly island-like in isolation. For example, in order to preserve their cultural and agricultural heritage, Iceland focuses on native breeds. The country even banned the import of dairy cows and instead concentrated on improving the productivity of Icelandic cows. Such Icelandic “heritage breeds” are a source of national pride for its people. These, and other endemic breeds, such as the horned Icelandic sheep and pony-like Icelandic horses, attract many tourists who regard the breeds as pure and prestigious.
The livestock rely on forage, rangeland, and hay – all of which are more productive because of climate change. For example, for each degree °C of warming, hay production increases by 16%. A warmer climate means that Iceland can now grow crops that were once unimaginable for an Arctic climate. Conditions to produce cereal grains, potatoes and carrots have greatly improved. The rising temperatures allow ranchers to graze their cows on barley, a far more productive forage than hay. The agricultural sector can now expand to meet the growing demand for crops and agritourism. Agritourism takes advantage of the exclusive nature of Icelandic breeds, and presents Iceland with obvious short-term economic benefits.
The allure of Iceland’s idyllic agricultural life makes the island very appealing to agritourists searching for a peek into an authentic local agrarian lifestyle. These tourists often stay on farms or in agrarian villages, and take part in agricultural activities. These activities can range from helping with crop care, to renting horses, and eating at a village’s farm-to-table restaurant. Icelandic livestock are the most popular farm “attraction.” Many tourists rush to watch the Icelandic sheep herded in from the rangeland. These tourists also rent Icelandic horses, and feed the cows that are the source of the dairy products that tourists consume.
Farms are scrambling to build accommodations for the growing number of agritourists because tourism has become a reliable year-round source of income for farmers. Farms such as the Efstidalur dairy farm, are transitioning to farm-hotels, to tap into the agritourist market. This family farm’s first tourist venture was in 1992 when it started a horse rental service. Since then, the farm has grown to include a bed and breakfast, farm-hotel, and farm-to-table restaurant, that attract thousands of guests each year.
With 2.2 million tourists projected to visit Iceland in 2017, the agricultural sector must expand to meet demand. But despite the climate change-based agritourism boom, Iceland still faces serious climate threats. Warming is causing alarmingly accelerated land uplift and glacial melt. Furthermore, a 2015 study found that Iceland’s oceans are rapidly rising at 3.56 cm per year. Melting glaciers will have a devastating effect on Iceland, and could cause significant losses in the core tourism industry, as glacier-related attractions recede with the ice. Although climate change is not currently impeding the thriving tourism industry, the threat looms large. Just as easily as it has helped tourism, climate change could also decimate the industry.