Faroe Islands to Take Tourism Time-Out in April

Closed for Maintenance sign, Faroe Islands
While the entirety of the Faroe Islands won't close to visitors at the end of April, the top tourist attractions on this windswept archipelago will briefly shutter for repairs and upgrades performed largely by ... tourists. (Photo: Visit Faroe Islands)

Like Iceland, the Faroe Islands are damp, far-flung and home to some of the most starkly dramatic landscapes on Earth. It's an intense place — as one might expect in a mist-shrouded North Atlantic archipelago where sheep outnumber people, puffin is a culinary staple and the hand-knit sweaters are extra thick.

Despite any topographical or cultural similarities between the two Nordic island countries, the Faroe Islands — technically an autonomous territory of Denmark located 200 miles northwest of mainland Scotland — are quite a bit more obscure than Iceland. The population is considerably smaller (less than 50,000 versus nearly 400,000) and there are far fewer flights in and out. And that's part of the appeal.

In a way, the Faroe Islands' rugged, under-the-radar nature harkens back to the way Iceland once was, before stopover vacation deals and "Game of Thrones" fans cemented the once-overlooked nation on the global tourism map. Since 2010, the number of foreign tourists to Iceland has more than quadrupled, jumping from 495,000 visitors to 2.1 million in 2017.

Beautiful landscape, Faroe Islands
Isolated but not prohibitively inaccessible, the Faroe Islands are famous for woolen goods, fermented foods and craggy vistas. (Photo: Visit Faroe Islands)

While Iceland has gladly welcomed a massive influx of visitors (most, but not all, well-behaved) to the capital of Reykjavik and its otherworldly countryside over the past decade, the country's runaway popularity has also been a "huge challenge" to quote Gunnar þór Jóhannesson, an associate professor at the University of Iceland who specializes in topics of tourism planning and policy. There have been growing pains.

Like in Iceland, Faroese officials are reluctant to curb the islands' growing popularity with adventure-seeking, selfie-snapping travelers. That would be economic suicide. Officials are, however, likely looking to their larger kind-of neighbor (Iceland is 300 miles to the west) as somewhat of a cautionary tale.

How can such a remote locale — "tucked away like a figment of a child's imagination" reads the Faroese tourism website — encourage tourism growth without irking the natives and putting its most cherished natural features at risk? Can the Faroe Islands maintain its mysterious, end-of-the-Earth vibes while making way for its first Hilton?

Sheep on Faroe Islands
Those with an unnatural fear of sheep should take heed before making the long trek to the Faroe Islands. (Photo: Pierre-Henry Deshayes/AFP/Getty Images)

With hotel capacity in the quaint but lively Faroese capital of Tórshavn expected to double in 2020 and a new direct flight from Paris set to debut this June, the islands' tourism authority is confident that the islands can continue to grow as an attractive destination without ruining it for everybody. And this April, officials are employing a unique measure to promote responsible tourism: they're simultaneously closing the islands' top attractions.

Calling all 'voluntourists'

During the weekend of April 26-28, the small number of hotels on the Faroe Islands will remain open as will shops, restaurants, and other businesses. Scheduled flights will operate as normal from Vágar Airport. Ten of the country's most popular sights and diversions, however, will be closed as locals — with an assist from a brigade of foreign "voluntourists" — embark on major conservation projects to ready the islands for the high tourist season.

"For us, tourism is not all about numbers," Guðrið Højgaard, director of Visit Faroe Islands, tells CNN Travel. "We welcome visitors to the islands each year, but we also have a responsibility to our community and to our beautiful environment, and our aim is to preserve and protect the islands, ensuring sustainable and responsible growth."

hiking in faroe islands
While increasingly popular with travelers, the Faroe Islands isn't yet overrun with tourists. And the small self-governing archipelago in the North Atlantic plans to keep it that way. (Photo: Visit Faroe Islands)

As the Closed for Maintenance micro-site details, much of the work will involve creating new and improved walking paths in "well-trodden areas," constructing viewpoints that don't impend on surrounding ecosystems, and erecting new signage to help better direct dazed-by-all-the-beauty visitors. Specific projects include improving the well-worn hiking path linking Tórshavn and the ancient village of Kirkjubøur as well as spiffing up walking trails and building new steps on the far-western island of Mykines, a particularly breathtaking spot famous for its 1909 lighthouse and seabird colonies.

As mentioned, the Faroese tourism bureau has enlisted "voluntourists" — 100 in total — to lend a helping hand with the projects. And not surprisingly, those 100 spots booked up super fast.

As a press release notes, volunteers from countries including China, Australia, Mexico, Estonia, Israel, and the United States have been accepted to partake in much-needed manual labor over that weekend. (Over 3,500 eager helpers from across the globe applied.) Because of the overwhelming response, there are plans to make Closed for Maintenance an annual event.

"This goes to show that people share our concern for the environment and are willing to use their precious time to help," says Højgaard.

Shared accommodations will be provided at or near the individual worksites, many of which are in remote villages. Meals, including a large celebratory group dinner, held the final night in Tórshavn, and ground transport is also provided. Volunteers, however, must pay their own way to and from the Faroe Islands via flights departing from Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Reykjavik, or Bergen, Norway.

Proposed scenic overlook, Faroe Islands
A photo-illustration depicting plans for a new and improved scenic overlook that will be completed by a crew of locals and 'voluntourists.'. (Photo: Visit Faroe Islands)

Reads the Close for Maintenance campaign page:

Notably — and happily — the Faroe Islands currently have no over-tourism problems. However, the fragile natural environment in a few popular tourist locations has felt the effects of an increase in visitors. These areas need a helping hand to ensure they remain pristine; sustainability is the goal.
We hope that our new project may inspire other countries to follow suit, and to set up their own Maintenance Crews, thereby encouraging tourists to help in whatever way is needed to deal with the particular problem/s affecting that destination.

While Visit Faroe Islands is quick to point out that steadily growing visitor numbers haven't been problematic a la Iceland or other tourist-saturated European destinations like Barcelona or Venice, Matthew Workman of the Faroe Islands Podcast tells Forbes that the increasingly ubiquitous presence of tour buses in highly photogenic spots like the village of Saksun (population: 8) has "caused some tension."

Closed for Maintenance sign, Faroe Islands
Due to an immense response, tourism officials in the Faroe Islands plan to make its Closed For Maintenance weekend an annual event. (Photo: Visit Faroe Islands)

Self-promotion that breaks the mold

It's true that the idea of showing up on a cluster of volcanic islands in the middle of nowhere and being put straight to work in potentially dismal weather isn't going to appeal to everyone. (And yes, volunteers are welcome to stick around and do their own thing after the work weekend concludes.)

But that's not really the point. More than anything, Closed For Maintenance is another brilliant stroke of self-promotion for Visit Faroe Islands, which previously garnered international headlines for its delightful Sheep View initiative in 2016 along with other viral campaigns.

These initiatives were dreamt up by Højgaard, a native Faroe Islander who has received numerous accolades for her attention-grabbing — and not at all easy — efforts to put the islands on the radar of people who might not know they even exist, let alone are a singularly spectacular place to visit. Most recently, she appeared as the "Island Evangelist" on the Politico 28 list of people "shaping, shaking and stirring Europe" in 2019.

As Politico notes, Højgaard's successes on the tourism front have even helped to reverse the trend of young people leaving for mainland Europe — Denmark, in particular — and never returning home.

Thorshavn, Faroe Islands
Established in AD 850, Torshavn ('Thor's Harbor') is the capital and largest city of the Faroe Islands with a population of roughly 17,000. (Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

"We hear from young people all the time that one of the reasons they want to come back is that we have made the Faroe Islands cool," she explains. "When you make a destination more interesting for tourists, you also make it more interesting for the locals."

Like past Visit Faroe Islands campaigns headed by Højgaard, Closed for Maintenance takes a novel approach to heightening the archipelago's enigmatic appeal, particularly to those interested in smart growth, sustainability, and, above all, authenticity. It's a truly multifaceted marketing tactic: repairs and upgrades are checked off the list, civic morale gets a boost and tourism messaging is disseminated wide and far. What's more, native Faroe Islanders get the chance to really lay out what their homeland is all about: caring for the environment and maintaining the islands' unique cultural heritage no matter how many flights are added or new hotels opened.

"We want people to experience the genuine culture of the Faroes," Højgaard tells The Guardian. "It's important to us that we don't change who we are just because more outsiders want to experience our natural, unspoiled environment."