Cycle under turbines, swim by power plants: how sustainability lures tourists

Green energy's new tourist appeal is creating a double-win

Near the south-western tip of Iceland, in a lava field, lies the “Blue Lagoon” — a geothermal spa that’s one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. The lagoon’s mineral-rich waters average around 38 degrees; it was named one of 25 wonders of the world by National Geographic.

But unlike the other wonders, the Blue Lagoon is artificial — created in 1976 by a spill from the nearby Svartsengi power station. Water is piped into the lagoon after passing through generator turbines in the power plant.

The Blue Lagoon is the most striking example of an unlikely new trend towards using sustainable energy as a way to lure visitors, particularly in rural areas off the beaten track. Popular in Iceland and Germany, it offers a win-win for local communities in the process of moving towards green energy

In the shadow of turbines

The village of Feldheim, about 80 kilometres south of Berlin, isn’t on the usual list of must-sees in eastern Germany. Its main street boasts a mechanic, the shop of the local agricultural co-operative, and little else.

But it manages to attract nearly 3,500 visitors each year — compared to a resident population which, in 2010, was just 128. The secret is that the village is the only entirely self-sufficient locality in Germany.

A few hundred metres east of the main street, 49 wind turbines produce vastly more electricity than Feldheim can use. Some 99% of it is sold into the energy market. The village, in partnership with renewable energy firm Energiequelle, also operates a solar farm and biogas plant.

A renewable energy visitor centre, set up in a shuttered restaurant, now explains Feldheim’s story to international visitors and details the operations of the different sustainable energy sources.

Baedeker, a major German tour guide publisher, released a book exclusively dedicated to renewable energy sites across the country in 2014. It contains over 190 destinations, some in cities but the majority in rural areas where most renewable energy generation takes place.

One is the “Path of Wind and Renewable Energies” in Wunsiedel, a town in the mountainous area near the Czech border. The cycle track winds through the town and countryside past sights including wind turbines, solar panels and the substation which connects local renewable production to the regional grid.

Green collectibles

Germany is in the midst of a dramatic energy transition, accelerated by chancellor Angela Merkel’s move to slash nuclear power production.

But other countries are also seeing the tourism side benefits of sustainable energy. In New Zealand, geothermal power plants sit alongside spa facilities, as in Iceland’s famous lagoon.

And hundreds of Japan’s dams, which produce hydropower as well as reducing flood risk, have started issuing trading cards. Dam management offices started to give out the cards — which specify the dam’s technical type, purpose and facts about its design — in 2007 at 111 sites. By 2016, they’d expanded to 500.

Originally aimed at people who were already interested in seeing the facilities, the cards have now become popular collectors’ items, sometimes serving as the main reason for a visit, according to local media. The Miyagase Dam, in the mountains west of Tokyo, gives out as many as 70,000 of its trading cards to visitors each year.

Iceland’s clean energy society

Nothing in Germany or Japan, though, can match the Blue Lagoon for sheer scale.

“We actually charge every tourist 40 euros, to bathe themselves in a spill of water from a power plant,” Iceland’s then-president Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson told an audience at the Sustainable Innovation Forum in 2015.

They’re willing to pay: the spa welcomed about 1.3 million guests in 2017, according to its chief executive. That compares to a total of 2.2 million international visitors to Iceland, a country of just 340,000 people.

But the lagoon is not the end of Iceland’s commitment to using renewable energy to attract visitors away from the capital, Reykjavik.

“For most people, a clean energy economy is a concept. It’s a vision,” Ólafur said. “It’s not part of their everyday experience.” So as Iceland has increased its commitment to renewables in recent years, it’s also made them more accessible to foreigners who want to see the concept put into practice.

Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national power company, has opened three plants to visitors. Ljósafoss and Fljótsdalur hydro power stations, as well as the geothermal plant at Krafla, offer guided tours which explain their operations and the country’s history with sustainable energy.

And even outside official visits, people across the country seem eager to promote their green economy. The Svartsengi plant which overlooks the Blue Lagoon is not open to tourists. But one TripAdvisor reviewer who “asked very nicely” was able to get a private tour on his honeymoon.

He gave it five stars, summarising: “If you’re into power plants, this is an amazing facility.” Particularly when they’re renewable, it seems, more and more people are. — Fergus Peace

(Picture credit: Andrew Bowden)

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