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Could this unspoilt archipelago become an unlikely overtourism battleground?

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 21/01/2019 Tim Ecott
© Hasselblad X1D

Most people would struggle to locate it on the map, but the remote Faroe Islands is embarking on an ambitious tourism strategy that some fear could threaten the archipelago’s wildlife and culture.

It includes the introduction, from July 1, of flights to Paris (CDG) by Atlantic Airways, the Faroes’ national airline, and plans to use a newly acquired Airbus 320neo (arriving in March) to fly to New York (Newark). Atlantic’s three existing jets already connect the Faroes to Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Bergen, Reykjavik and Barcelona. Furthermore, as of this month Atlantic flights will operate on a code-share basis with KLM, making connections from the Dutch airline’s route network available on one ticket.

Amazing dramatic view of Drangarnir gate in front of Tindholmur in Vagar island, Faroe Islands, Denmark north atlantic ocean, best destination for hiking, stunning sea stack with deep blue water. Amazing dramatic view of Drangarnir gate in front of Tindholmur in Vagar island, Faroe Islands, Denmark north atlantic ocean, best destination for hiking, stunning sea stack with deep blue water. With a population of just 50,000 people, the Faroes (half way between Shetland and Iceland) remain one of the least trammelled destinations in Europe, but a vigorous marketing campaign by the national tourist board Visit Faroe Islands has seen an annual increase in visitors of around 10 per cent each year over the past four years. That mini-boom in visitors means the 18 islands now welcome about 60,000 holidaymakers a year, as well as about 40,000 short-stay cruise passengers. It’s not mass tourism, but getting a hotel room in summer can be, as the locals might say, “harder than spotting a puffin at Christmas”.

Village of Saksun located on the island of Streymoy, Faroe Islands © AEVAR GUDMUNDSSON Village of Saksun located on the island of Streymoy, Faroe Islands In Tórshavn, often called the ‘world’s smallest capital city’, there’s no sign yet that tourism could overwhelm the place. There are no chain hotels and traffic jams are unheard of. Driving anywhere in this town of 19,000 people never takes longer than five minutes. But there are two new hotels under construction, each with 125 rooms, effectively doubling the number of beds available. Both will open early next year. At the same time, the island’s premier hotel, the sleek Føroyar, is planning to double its capacity.

exploring Kalsoy cliffs and lighthouse, Faroe Islands, Europe © francesco riccardo iacomino exploring Kalsoy cliffs and lighthouse, Faroe Islands, Europe Nevertheless, there appears to be a conscious effort to avoid the sort of problems seen in Iceland, where a sharp increase in arrivals has led to complaints from locals that their country is being “Disneyfied”.  Johannes Jensen, Føroyar’s owner, says: “No-one in tourism wants to see development for its own sake,” says Jensen. “We want to preserve our distinctive culture and protect our natural environment – and we’ve seen how Reykjavik [Iceland’s capital] has somehow lost a bit of its soul due to overtourism.”

Atlantic puffin, Mykines island, Faroe Islands, Denmark © 2018 Roberto Moiola Atlantic puffin, Mykines island, Faroe Islands, Denmark Guđriđ Højgaard, CEO of Visit Faroe Islands is clear that tourism needs to expand sensitively. “We see no comparison with what’s happened in Iceland,” she says. “They have many different airlines servicing the island, and cater for more than 2.5 million visitors per annum. We don’t aim for that. We only want to develop in order to preserve what we have.” Højgaard points out that this summer season will see campaigns aimed at integrating local people’s needs and expectations with tourism.

Some Faroese are less convinced that increased tourism will be beneficial. Although the islands offer spectacular hiking opportunities, much of the land is privately owned. Some landowners are restricting access to sites, in return for a share of tourism revenue. It means that some of the most popular viewpoints can now only be visited with a guide, at a cost of up to £75 per person.

Sunrise in the village of Funningar, Faroe Islands. © 2014 Marc Perrella Sunrise in the village of Funningar, Faroe Islands. One prominent local conservationist, biologist Jens-Kjeld Jensen, says he believes the Faroes’ government needs to do more to safeguard the islands. He feels environmental rules are not tight enough and questions whether things like the popular boat tours to the famed bird cliffs are sustainable. “In the long term we will lose our special natural attractions and endanger our rich natural resources – birds, plants – even insects,” he says.

Meanwhile, Professor Pál Weihe, Chair of the Faroese Art Association, is concerned about the wider impact of development. “I’m fearful mass tourism could dilute our distinctive culture, which relies on a long history of shared language and customs,” he says. “We mustn’t change to fit in with outsiders’ expectations.”

Beautiful winding road in Nordredal valley in Faroe Islands with green grass high mountains through shining Atlantic Ocean, blue sky and Koltur island in the middle, great sunshine in summer. Beautiful winding road in Nordredal valley in Faroe Islands with green grass high mountains through shining Atlantic Ocean, blue sky and Koltur island in the middle, great sunshine in summer. Faroes’ bid for an airlink with New York is ambitious, but the islands have struck a particular chord with the American market. They often come to Faroes just to sample the revolutionary cuisine at ‘Koks’, the islands’ first Michelin-starred restaurant. Recently voted second best restaurant in the Danish Kingdom (beaten only by Noma), it sits in a dramatic and isolated valley accessible only by 4x4. Chef Poul Andrias Ziska serves ultra-modern Faroese cuisine using local ingredients like fermented lamb, reindeer lichen and fulmar breast. A gourmet dinner with wines in this cosy 18th-century farmhouse costs around £350 per person. Americans are the largest number of diners, followed by Scandinavians and then Britons.  

Outside Tórshavn, there are few restaurants, and only a handful of hotels. According to Guđriđ Højgaard: “We’re looking at ways to help outer islands and smaller communities attract visitors too. And we have a plan to make sure tourists contribute good things while they’re here.”

In the end, those who fear overtourism in the Faroe Islands may have one natural ally – the weather. A good day in July will see temperatures reach just 16C, and rain is likely on almost every day of the year.

Gallery: 21 best dive sites [National Geographic]


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