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Is Iceland Too Popular for Its Own Good?

This photo taken Wednesday, May 1, 2019, shows a cliff at the Fjadrárgljúfur canyon in southeastern Iceland. (AP Photo/Egill Bjarnason)
Is Iceland Too Popular for Its Own Good?
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A large sign warns people that Iceland’s Fjadrárgljúfur canyon is closed to visitors.

Yet many people keep driving down the narrow road to the canyon. A ranger at a roadblock must explain to them why no one can pass: The area cannot support more visitors.

Drivers try to persuade ranger Hanna Jóhannsdóttir into opening the entrance to the canyon. Some offer her money if she agrees to help. They should know that such a bribe will not work.

“Food from people’s home country is the most common bribery,” said Jóhannsdóttir. She recently turned down a free trip to Dubai in exchange for letting trespassers past the roadblock.

Too many visitors, not enough infrastructure

The problem is that the North Atlantic island nation may be too popular for its own good.

Last year, 2.3 million people visited Iceland, compared with just 600,000 eight years ago. The number of visitors is out of proportion to the infrastructure needed to protect its countryside.

Inga Palsdottir is the head of the national tourism agency Visit Iceland. She said a single film shot or video has often put overlooked places on the map.

The extreme example in Iceland, she said, is the wreckage of a United States Navy airplane. The plane crashed on a black sandy beach in 1973. The seven Americans on the Douglas DC-3 aircraft all survived but the plane wreck was never removed.

“Then someone decided to dance on it and now it’s one of the most popular places in the country,” said Palsdottir.

Fjadrárgljúfur canyon could be seen in the most recent season of the television program “Game of Thrones.” It also was part of a Justin Bieber music video.

The video has been watched over 440 million times on YouTube since 2015. The singer can be seen walking on plant life and bathing in the cold river underneath the canyon’s walls.

Environment Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson said it is “a bit too simplistic to blame the entire situation on Justin Bieber.” However, he urged famous visitors to consider the effects of their actions.

Rash behavior by one famous person can dramatically impact an entire area if the mass follows,” he told The Associated Press.

Gudbrandsson added, “In Justin Bieber’s defense, the canyon did not, at the time he visited, have rope fences and designated paths…”

Over 1 million people have visited the area since the Bieber video was released, the Environment Agency of Iceland estimates. The visitors left deep scars on the country’s vegetation. The canyon was closed for all but five weeks this year.

In this photo taken Wednesday, May 1, 2019, Russian tourist Nadia Kazachenok poses for a photograph taken by Mikhail Samarin at the Fjadrárgljúfur.
In this photo taken Wednesday, May 1, 2019, Russian tourist Nadia Kazachenok poses for a photograph taken by Mikhail Samarin at the Fjadrárgljúfur.

Tourists ignore signs

On a foggy morning, Hanna Jóhannsdóttir found footprints on the muddy path leading to the Fjadrárgljúfur canyon. The footprints suggested that someone had jumped the fence overnight.

She predicted that more people would trespass later that day when she left to give a presentation at a community center.

Less than 30 minutes after she left, people began ignoring the fences and signs.

“We came because of Justin Timberlake,” said Mikhail Samarin, a tourist from Russia traveling with two other people. They were quick to correct the artist’s last name to Bieber.

The three took turns posing for photographs, standing at the edge of an Icelandic cliff.

I'm John Russell.

Egill Bjarnason reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted the report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

ranger – n. the keeper of a forest or protected space

trespasser – n. someone who unlawfully enters someone else’s land

proportion – n. the correct relationship between the size, shape, and position of the different parts of something

beach – n. the land near a body of water

rash – adj. done or made quickly and without thought about what will happen as a result

vegetation – n. plant life

pose – v. to stand, sit, or lie down as a model for a painting or picture