I’m at a literal standstill, overlooking the most incredible valley in the far-flung Faroe Islands: the Danish-ruled archipelago located between Iceland and the Shetlands. There’s a wind-swept native sheep eye-balling me at close quarters while a jaw-dropping backdrop of a 19th century Lutheran church yields to a plunging valley line. Saksun, as it's named, is one of the Faroe Island’s most popular attractions but here on a winterish February afternoon, there is nobody but me in what is one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen. The perfect place for a hike, then. But there’s just one thing stopping my tracks: a turnstile, a credit card machine and 75 Kroner (€10) entry fee. Welcome to the Faroe Islands, fully charged.
Like many destinations across the world right now, not least neighbouring Iceland, The Faroe Islands has almost been a victim of its own social media success with many of its trending attractions paying a price, ironically for their popularity. Now, pay stations at a handful of the nation’s most popular hiking trails are just one way the Nordic nation is trying to curb over-tourism — and erosion — in some of its more trending locations while also encouraging tourists to wander to lesser-visited jewels elsewhere.
It’s also prompted the country to address what locations it showboats online more, too.
“When we first started using Instagram we soon realised the power of the platform and how it could affect tourism patterns,” explains Súsanna Sørensen from Visit Faroe Islands, the country’s official tourist board.
“So for some years we’ve been very conscious of the impact of Instagram and we’re trying to move visitors to other less-visited sites and at the same time, not post images from the most popular places.
"Recently we’ve also widened the scope of our content, and are to a larger degree posting stories about locals from various parts of the country. So it’s not only beautiful landscapes but also our culture and people.”
That the locals play centre stage to the country’s profile is also key to the sustainable model.
“Any development should be good for the locals first,” adds Súsanna.
“The idea being that a country which is good for its citizens is a good place to visit. As a result, we are trying to involve local municipalities and communities in the development. We are also very conscious of the fact that there is a limit to how many visitors a small country like Faroe Islands can have, and we are trying to attract those who understand us as a destination and who fit with our DNA.”
So conscious is the country of the impact of tourism on its natural environment it even hosts an annual Closed for Maintenance campaign, a week in May when the country closes some of its top hiking routes for upkeep. After applying via an online lottery, 100 international volunteers are then hosted on the island for the campaign and help repair the hiking trails eroded by their predecessors. It’s proved hugely popular with more than 4,000 international applicants, myself included, putting their names in the hat.
“Maybe it has captured the zeitgeist of today,” Súsanna explains.
"When we first launched the initiative, we worried whether people would actually invest their valuable time to travel to another country and help out. We need not worry, which became obvious on the first registration day, when thousands signed up. We closed again this weekend, and it was touching to see the enthusiasm and pride in which the 11 different teams took on the tasks.”
As for traditional tourists travelling to the Nordic archipelago, the Faroe Islands advise tourists to their islands to leave as little footprints as possible on the natural landscape while also embracing and supporting local cultures.
“Through our website, social media and brochures, we’re trying to educate our visitors in a number of ways. Reminding people to be respectful of the locals, use designated paths and to be mindful of their own safety, just to mention some examples,” advises Súsanna.
“But also to engage in the country you visit, for example by visiting local families through our heimablídni (which translates as home hospitality) where you as a traveller can dine with local families and thereby getting a good understanding of life lived here.”
That tourism mindfulness capped with an incredibly beautiful destination made my trip to the Faroe Islands one of my greatest travel surprises in several years. I stayed in a Hilton hotel with a traditional grass roof, dined on farm-fresh Faroese tapas at Katrina Christiansen’s phenomenal restaurant, and shopped at artisanal woollen stores which places sustainable local fashion at the forefront. But the ethos also proves that even when you travel as far as the Faroe Islands, it’s still best not to follow the flock.
I travelled to the Faroe Islands with Atlantic Airways (atlanticairways.com) who fly from both Copenhagen and Edinburgh. Expect to pay about €350 return from either city.
On the ground, I stayed at the Hilton Garden for €160 per night and there are some exceptional Airbnb options on the islands too. In all, there are 18 islands on the archipelago but I opted to focus on just two; Streymoy and Vagar.
For tourism tips and more on the Closed for Maintenance campaign, see visitfaroeislands.com