Interview: Director General, Visit Faroe Islands
Breathtaking, windswept green cliffs. All the weather you could ever possibly want. More sheep than people. Looking for an adventure? Maybe something, let’s say, Unspoiled. Unexplored. Unbelievable. Well then, how about a trip to the Faroe Islands? (stay tuned for next week’s photo post about what we did there!)
Never heard of them? Well, they are way off the radar of most travelers! In the North Atlantic, north of Scotland and east of Iceland, they’re surprisingly easy to get to via either of those places (I’ll talk about that next week, too). With only 50,000 residents, but 80,000 sheep, the biggest problem you’ll have is watching out for sheep (yep, they were even wandering around the airport parking). And, as I began doing my research for this trip, I had virtually no information on the Faroe Islands, so I started with the most logical place - the Visit Faroe Islands website- which turned out to be an incredible resource.
Even though they’re still relatively undiscovered, the Faroe Islands is becoming more and more popular and I wanted to find out why. So I reached out to Guðrið Højgaard (pronounced roughly GUH-roy), the Director General of Visit Faroe Islands. A native of the Faroe Islands, she was once an exchange student in Spain, then an au pair in London, eventually heading off to the Copenhagen Business School and Stockholm University. Prior to becoming Director General, Guðrið worked as the Marketing Manager for VisitDenmark in Stockholm and as the Marketing Director of the Visit Stockholm. Since she’s taken over the helm of Visit Faroe Islands in 2012, Guðrið and her team have made a concerted effort to bring more and responsible tourism to the Faroe Islands. She graciously agreed to do an interview with me so that I can share all of the interesting and exciting things taking place with the Faroe Islands (and to encourage you to visit, too).
Thanks so much for doing this interview. In my short time in the Faroe Islands, I see how beautiful they are and how fantastic the people are. I’m very excited to do more exploring.
1. I’d heard of the Faroe Islands before, but only really saw photos for the first time because of the Sheep View Project in 2016. Has this project helped introduce the Faroe Islands to a broader audience?
Yes, absolutely. Initially, we were trying to find a way to match the media attention we received in 2015 when the Faroe Islands were one of only two places on the earth where you could get a good view of the solar eclipse (the other being Svalbard, Norway). As we were brainstorming about how to bring more attention to the Faroe Islands, we came up with the Sheep View Project, mostly as a publicity stunt. We were hopeful, but had no expectations at all that it would be successful. We had a 1 million Danish Kroner budget (about $160,000) for the campaign and Atlantic Airways (our national carrier) matched it. So we made the most of it. Surprisingly, within a few hours, it took off! The Guardian newspaper caught on it to and it went from there!
heep View Project: For those who are unfamiliar with the Sheep View Project , since the Faroe Islands has about twice as many sheep than residents, cameras were strapped to five sheep on the islands just to see what would happen. The results are awesome and sometimes hilarious! Make sure to check it out! In fact, the Sheep View Project has won about 30 awards including the Travel & Tourism Award at the World Media Awards 2017 and Three Lions in Cannes!
2. Your annual tourism report statistics show that the Faroe Islands are most popular with older visitors (54% older than 45 years old). Why do you think that is? There does seem to be interest among 26-34 year olds (21%). Is part of your tourism campaign to attract younger, adventure visitors?
That’s true. Prior to my being appointed Director in 2012, the Faroe Islands were mostly popular with an older demographic. That’s because visitors were coming in on cruise ships and group tours, both of which tend to attract more mature travelers. Since 2012, my team and I have worked to attract younger travelers, particularly those interested in more independent and adventure travel. It’s definitely working, but it takes time. As an example, we had an increase of 60,000 bed nights from 2012 to 2016, which we're very pleased about.
3. Talk about your tourism marketing plan for the Faroe Islands.
Right now, we are trying to maximize our budget and get the most value from it. That means we are focusing on “low hanging fruit” - visitors who visit the most - visitors from Nordic countries, Germany, and Great Britain. Once we’ve been successful in increasing these visitors, then we hope to expand into other, more untapped markets, like the U.S. and China.
4. What have the Faroe Islands learned from other countries about increasing the number of visitors while also maintaining sustainable tourism?
That it’s a balance.We want people to come and visit, but we also want to maintain nature and the environment. When we our launched our brand in 2013, we surveyed 5,000 visitors and asked them to describe the Faroe Islands in one word. The word “un” came up in the majority of those responses, so we took advantage of it and decided to gear our marketing to maintain that “un” part of the Faroe Islands that people love. The result was our current campaign of “Unspoiled, Unexplored, Unbelievable“. To keep that “un” part, along with increasing tourism, we want to make sure that we maintain a respect for the environment and the residents.
5. I’ve read recently about tourism backlash in some countries – places seeing huge numbers of visitors, that may not have the resources to accommodate them. Has the Faroe Islands experienced any “tourism backlash”?
Not really a backlash, we are experiencing “growing pains”. Of course, you always see a bit of that when there are changes. Our industry is working really hard to prevent backlash and have tried to learn from other places. Currently, development is at the discretion of local authorities, but the Faroese government is working to centralize development to create a more uniform development plan across the Faroe Islands beginning in 2018.
Also, earning a living in tourism can be a challenge. Right now, there's a high season and a low season. During the high season, accommodations are difficult to secure, but businesses are busy. During the low season, it’s easier to find accommodations, but it’s harder for businesses to stay open because there are fewer visitors. We’re trying to develop a strategy that creates stable tourism so that visitors can come and enjoy and businesses can earn a living.
6. What do you see as the biggest hurdle/obstacle for the Faroe Islands as it welcomes more and more visitors?
There are a couple of hurdles. One is that we are trying to maintain the natural beauty of the Faroe Islands, as we welcome more visitors, particularly nature lovers.
Also, not all the roads are marked and not all streets have signs, so sometimes finding your way isn’t always easy. Still, that’s part of the mystery of the Faroe Islands and why we encourage visitors to come and explore.
Another obstacle is that we only have 800 hotel beds so, like I mentioned, there are room shortages from time to time. Airbnb is filling a gap right now with the increase in visitors, but at the moment, tourism doesn’t include Airbnb statistics. We also recognize that some of the regulations regarding hotels and Airbnb’s may need to adapt as we see more tourists, but for right now, it all seems to be working.
7. When people visit the Faroe Islands, what is something that may surprise them?
How fresh the air is. We don’t have a lot of people, cars or other types of pollution, so the air is very clean.
8. Finally, what are three things that people should know about the Faroe Islands and the Faroese?
First nature. People often describe the Faroe Islands as the weather god’s playground because we have all types of weather in a very short time.
Second, the Faroe Islands are really for artists and photographers. The natural beauty of the place, the light, the landscape, really lends itself to art and photography.
Third, the food. The food is really great. We even have a Michelin starred restaurant!
(And I agree! The food is surprisingly fantastic!)
Guri, thank you so much again for taking time to speak with me! I loved meeting you and really enjoyed our conversation!
And remember to come back next week to see more incredible shots and to hear about where we went and what we did!