“Closed for Maintenance, Open for Voluntourism” – that was the message of the inaugural weekend of action across the Faroe Islands in spring 2019. It was the first big step towards future-proofing the Faroe Islands, initiating projects at popular tourist spots and proving that a lot can be accomplished when like-minded people work together.
Introducing the Faroe Islands
That ‘Faroe Islands’ means ‘Sheep Islands’ tells you much about this self-governing region of Denmark in the wilds of the North Atlantic. The eighteen volcanic islands, seventeen of which are inhabited, sit roughly half way between Scotland and Iceland, where changeable weather and extremes of seasonal light and dark are the norm, and the population of hardy Faroese sheep far outnumber people.
The rocky, rugged landscape, edged with sheer cliffs and fantastic sea stacks, is noticeable for its lack of trees. With thin topsoil and exposure to the elements, they quite literally struggle to take root here and even if they did, the sheep would soon see to any ambitious shoots. The sparse landscape is instead carpeted in a luscious blend of bright green grass and moss, striped with waterfalls and dotted with colourful villages and traditional grass-roofed huts.
The wildlife is, of course, one of the islands’ major draws with people coming from all over to see the buzzing bird-filled cliffs, summer home to puffins, fulmars, guillemots and much more.
Add to this the compact cultural capital of Tórshavn, with its historic parliament, sophisticated dining options and indie woollen shops, and it’s no surprise that those hankering for an adventurous destination with a difference look towards the Faroe Islands.
If you're thinking of visiting the Faroe Islands – get in touch. Rough Guides has partnered with a local tour provider to offer fully customisable trips to the region.
The Faroe Islands are known for its rugged landscape © Tordis Kristina á Rógvi Simonsen
Well trodden paths
Perhaps surprisingly, this isn’t a land of mega mountains. The highest is Slættaratindur (meaning ‘flat peak’) at around 880 m on Eysturoy, the second largest of the islands. It’s roughly two-thirds the height of Ben Nevis in the Scottish highlands and less than half the height of Iceland’s leading peak, Hvannadalshnjúkur.
Yet, the Faroe Islands pull in hikers keen to tread its historic village paths – ancient trails that connected remote communities long before the arrival of roads. Visitors come to tick off multiple islands and see as much bird and marine wildlife as possible.
It’s this general wear and tear that highlighted the need for the “Closed for Maintenance, Open for Voluntourism” campaign.
Although no secret to avid lovers of the great outdoors, tourism is in its infancy in the Faroe Islands. Keen to encourage growth while learning from areas suffering from overtourism – Nordic neighbour Iceland a nearby example – Visit Faroe Islands is employing foresight to try and establish the Faroe Islands as a sustainable destination for all.
Understandably, this has led to a few growing pains. As Tordis K. á Rógvi, manager at Visit Sandoy, pointed out, although “the number of tourists at the moment is not an issue, we need people to explore more than just the hottest Instagram spots.”
This should be easy in a natural playground brimming with striking vantage points, but visitors need to know where they can and cannot go, which is where appropriate maps, signposts and well-marked rights of way come into play. These, in turn, require consensus between local communities and officials, not to mention cooperation from visitors. From relationships to ecosystems, it’s a fine balancing act.
Creating pathways and trails on the Faroe Islands ©Tróndur Dalsgarð for VisitFaroeIslands
Closed for Maintenance: what happened?
The aim of the 'Closed for Maintenance' campaign was simple: to preserve and protect the islands’ fragile landscapes by working with locals to uncover areas of concern, allowing projects to be targeted effectively.
In total, ten major routes were closed for maintenance to all except volunteers getting stuck into reconstructing cairns and erecting info boards, gravelling paths and hammering in waymarkers.
Rógvi said, “Getting help from both locals and voluntourists made it possible to get so much done in a short period of time – give 20 people a plan over two days, and a lot can happen!”
Local farmer and project foreman during the Closed for Maintenance weekend, Jacob Martin Debes, said he was pleased with the results? “People are using the path we reopened and I never hear anyone saying that it’s not well marked. I’m very happy.”
What’s next for sustainable tourism in the Faroe Islands?
Working in tandem with Visit Faroe Islands' delightfully-named sustainable tourism strategy, Preservolution, Rógvi hopes that the Closed for Maintenance campaign, which is currently accepting registrations for 2020, will continue to “help develop tourism in a sustainable way based on local wishes and knowledge.”
The weekend, which shone an international spotlight on the islands, also showed just what can be achieved when people work together. “You might not think that two days can make a difference,” said Rógvi, “but I promise, it has had a huge impact. I think that Closed for Maintenance is a good first step to ensuring sustainable tourism in the Faroe Islands.”
And the volunteers seemed to agree. Visitor Helena Wennergran said, “It was one of the most energising weekends I’ve had in a long time – being outdoors in the mist, working together with people from all over the world and feeling helpful.”
Jenn Nelson concurred: “It seemed like a unique opportunity to meet locals and invest in the longevity of the Faroe Islands. I got to see a beautiful place and met incredible people –I wouldn't have traded it for anything.”
Skarvanes village in the Faroe Islands ©Tordis Kristina á Rógvi Simonsen
Why visit the Faroe Islands now?
We’ve all been given the responsibility of thinking a little more sensitively about where we go, what we do and the impact it has on the planet - a quick glance at the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals explains how and why.
When you consider the many wonderful sights and experiences that can be enjoyed crowd-free in the Faroe Islands, a destination that is actively trying to future-proof itself and hit some of these international targets one step at a time, the question really is, why not go now?
If you crave a bit of wilderness and love a good adventure whatever the weather, then go for the puffins, be wowed by the geology, enjoy the boat trips, test the renovated paths and newly built step ladders, and make the most of trendy Tórshavn. Even better, consider signing up for Closed for Maintenance 2020 for an unforgettable weekend of giving something back among the sheep and chirping oystercatchers.
Get even more from your trip by exploring the Faroe Islands in the safe hands of an experienced, knowledgeable guide. Find out more about tours to the Faroe Islands with Rough Guides and start planning your very own adventure today. You can fly direct to the Faroe Islands with Atlantic Airways, which departs from Copenhagen daily and Edinburgh twice-weekly.