Algonquin students give Icelandic ecotourism a fat chance

A group of students from Algonquin College's outdoor adventure program travelled to Iceland to explore fat bikes as a means of boosting the Nordic nation's tourism industry in a less damaging way.

Students travelled 3,800 km to explore fat biking as a sustainable way of exploring Nordic island nation

Algonquin student Connor Hamilton said tires on typical fat bikes are about six centimetres wide. The fat bikes he and his classmates used in Iceland had wheels that were about twice that width. (Gregory C. McNeil)

Iceland's natural beauty and wild landscape of waterfalls, volcanoes and hot springs have led to a boom in tourism for the Nordic nation. But the nascent industry has become a victim of its own success, with increasing traffic on the country's roads and pressure on its ecosystems.

Now, 3,800 kilometres away, students with Algonquin College's outdoor adventure program think they've come up with a way of touring the small island country without leaving such a deep footprint. 

The students travelled to Iceland to study how fat bikes could potentially help ease the strain tourists place on Iceland's fragile environment.

They discovered the big-tired bicycles, which in Ottawa are mostly used for winter trail riding, could also become a sustainable way of sightseeing.

Iceland has become a popular tourist destination because of its natural beauty, with spots like the Gullfoss waterfall. (Nova Scotia Nature Trust)

'We turned heads'

Chris Melmoth, a professor in the outdoor adventure program, told CBC Radio's All In A Day that after the recession of 2008, tourism overtook fishing as Iceland's biggest economic driver.

His group researched geological sites around the world and Iceland came to their attention. The country has become a unique case study for the program because tourism has created overpopulation in the country of just over 300,000 people, he said.

"The small island of Iceland in the past five years has gone from having ... around 550,000 [tourists] to a projected number of 2.5 million this coming year," Melmoth said. "So we started thinking about the impact these people are having,"

"We took the bikes everywhere. We took them from the Black Sand Beach [at Iceland's southern tip] to all the way into the glaciers, to bike up and go see as close as we could with them," student Connor Furneaux said. "They could ride over anything ... we could ride over things the size of bowling balls with ease."

"We turned heads. People haven't seen these bikes where we took them before. We were in places bikes have probably never been," student Connor Hamilton said.

Hamilton said the locals they talked to were intrigued with the bikes, and with what the students were doing there.

Fat bikes are much less destructive than motorized vehicles — the "super jeeps" or SUVs tourists tend to rent to explore the country, Hamilton said.

The bikes also do less damage than regular mountain bikes because the tires are wider and weight is dispersed over a greater area, putting less pressure on terrain, he said. 

We hear how students at Algonquin college have tested a much less harmful way for tourists to visit fragile sites: by fat bike. 8:23

Fat bikes haven't caught on in the country, but Melmoth and his students are hoping they might soon.

Melmoth said the trip was an opportunity for students to see what's going on in Iceland and to explore tourist areas in a more sustainable way. And while turning heads, he said, they were also planting seeds, getting more people to think about fat bikes as a means of transportation.