Can the Faroes Cope?

In Denmark’s far-flung Faroe Islands, a Hilton hotel is preparing to open. Can the islands cope with the mass influx of tourism? JAMES STEWART asks the question…

James Stewart

Why in Odin’s name did the Faroese settle here? What made those 8th-century Vikings (and 7th century Irish monks) pause between Norway and Iceland, and think, “With some turf roofs and pretty lace curtains this would be a fine place to live”? The Faroe Islands’ scenery is almost too extreme to feel welcoming, jutting with knife-edge mountains and cliffs that would kill you before you knew you had slipped. It’s also remote. If you want to talk social distancing, this autonomous Danish archipelago in the North Atlantic is it. So much so that the Danes don’t want us to come, thanks. Even if we could travel, holidaymakers from the UK remain on Denmark’s ‘banned’ list. The Faroes have had no Covid-19 deaths, and plan to keep it that way. And the feeling seems to be mutual, with Denmark taken off Britain’s travel-corridor list.

The things that the Faroes lack could be a saga. There are no trees, no crime and no doorbells (people knock then let themselves in; there are also few locks). In Torshavn, the capital on Streymoy Island that is a fifty minute drive east of the airport, there’s no charge on buses, and there’s no division between the government and governed… Bárður á Steig Nielsen, the prime minister, is listed in the phonebook. What the Faroes do have, though, is their first foreign tourism business, a Hilton hotel that opened in Torshavn towards the end of last month. A turf-roofed, glass-skinned block above the ring road a mile from the centre, it has informal, woody, Scandi design in an open-plan public area, eco-ethics such as energy harvesting and water saving, the high-end Faroese bistro Hallartún and a spa. Pared-back furnishings in the 130 guest rooms focus your attention on the hills and sea outside. Or they do at the front. Rooms at the back look on to an industrial estate.

Pandemic permitting, direct flights from London and New York launch next spring. It’s quite a shift for a nation of 52,000 people. Tourism revenues were already up 10 per cent annually. On the blogosphere there’s breathless talk of the new Iceland. Is it? And are the Faroese pleased? Opinion is divided in Torshavn. Some people welcome the internationalism that tourism introduces; others fear more gift shops and Airbnbs, and less real life. Of the islands’ 130,000 annual visitors, a third are cruise day-trippers to Torshavn. Faroese culture is rich but fragile, one woman tells me. Gudrid Hojgaard, director of the Visit Faroe Islands tourist board, says that the country has learnt from Iceland. Instead of easy money from cruise ships, “we’re focusing on people who are interested in our culture and meeting the Faroese, for example through heimablidni, in which you dine with local families, or concerts in private homes”.

Torshavn translates as ‘Thor’s harbour’. Whatever you imagined the port of a hammer-wielding lightning god might look like, this isn’t it. It’s too pretty. Fishing boats like toy longships bob before houses in Lego-brick colours. In the old town, which smells faintly of air-drying fish, cabiny restaurants occupy tin-clad houses. The mood is slyly arty-crafty, not just in the National Gallery or the lithograph workshop Steinprent, but places such as Ostrom, showcasing Faroese designers, and shops selling handmade knitwear. Gudrun & Gudrun is the famous one — the jumper Sarah Lund wore in The Killing was theirs; yours, too, for 3,000 DKK (£346). Lovely, but not exactly why those new Hilton guests will come to the Faroe Islands — everyone visits for the scenery.

West of Torshavn I enter a landscape that seems to have been built from reading descriptions of Norse epics. The road snakes beneath mountains with basalt ramparts. Off the village of Bøur, shark-fin islands capsize into a sea that’s all foam and glitter. The landscape is like ocular tinnitus: you think you’re used to it, then you turn a corner and — oh my! — see it anew all over again. As magical is the light. It’s luminous, almost mercurial. Something to do with all that empty ocean, I expect. Nacreous clouds roll overhead, and the sea shifts from pewter to steel to silver as you watch it. Gasadalur is at the end of the road west from Torshavn. A loose knot of turf-roofed houses ringed by mountains, the village teeters behind a waterfall that hurls itself into the sea. I stand on a cliff, watching fulmars ride the updraught, deep-breathing ozone. Until 2006 the view was accessible only to those prepared to hike in or ascend from a sketchy harbour. Then the government spent 223,000,000 DKK (£26m) on a tunnel. Point out that it would have been cheaper to give Gasadalur’s eight residents a helicopter each and the Faroese will patiently explain the national policy to support remote communities, which is why tunnels link most islands. Anyway, I’m told at a new café that the tunnel worked — Gasadalur now has twelve residents. It also, usually, has a lot more visitors. Seemingly purpose-built for Instagram, the village has become one of the Faroes’ premier sights.

Kalsoy Island is another big-hitter, a sliver of land that’s an hour’s drive then a short ferry ride east of Torshavn. The Faroese know it for mischievous trolls and women who metamorphose into seals. In April (in theory) the world will discover it as a destination that outbroods Daniel Craig in the new James Bond film, No Time to Die. No spoilers from Johannis Kallsgard, a farmer who signed a non-disclosure agreement when the crew filmed on his four hundred acres at Kalsoy’s northern tip. I can reveal that there will be scenery from the edge of the world: knuckle-duster mountains and hamlets dangling before shifting seascapes; cliffs that materialise from clouds like visions. The filming was good money, Johannis tells me as we walk over springy turf that his family has farmed for 450 years. “I built sheep pens from the sets afterwards,” he says. Still, he was relieved when the shoot finished: “This land is my home as much as my house. My family made every ditch and wall.”

Filming for the Bond movie No Time to Die

We end at a lighthouse beside a monstrous cliff. I peer over: dandelion-seed gulls drift dizzyingly far below; blue-black sea churns; my head spins. Several times a year Johannis lowers himself over on a rope to harvest seabirds, as his father and grandfather and their grandfathers did. “It never gets easier,” he says. Gull tastes like gamey duck, he tells me. Yet things are changing. Before Covid-19 about 15,000 people a year came to get their classic Instagram shot. Johannis plans to offer them James Bond tours when they return. On Suðuroy, by contrast, Instagrammers are as scarce as trolls. Only a fraction of visitors to the Faroes take the Suðuroy ferry south from Torshavn, and the island remains a glimpse of an older civilisation.

I’m staying with Johan Simonsen and his cousin Gudrun Rógvadóttir (half of Gudrun & Gudrun) at Heima I Stovu, a homestay they have created in Hvalba, the village where they spent childhood holidays with their grandmother. En route from the port we park beside a farmer pulling up potatoes. After a testy exchange Johan returns with a bag: “He said if I ever offer to pay again he won’t give me anything else.” Clad in corrugated tin, Heima í Stovu is furnished entirely from family heirlooms — sepia photos on floral wallpaper, mahogany sideboards, brass beds with monogrammed white linen. At night it shimmers in candlelight. Created from the heart, a homage to family and tradition, it is the antithesis of Instagram despite being the most photogenic place I have stayed in for years.

A bit like Suðuroy itself, then. When we hike over moors above Hvalba, Johan says: “This is the Faroes that makes me homesick. The green, the mountains, the fresh air, being alone.” I nod. But I’m not really listening. Clouds are snagged on peaks and the sea has the silver-blue sheen of fresh mackerel. It’s magical. We reach a cleft in the cliffs, as though Thor had gone mad with his hammer, and cross a footbridge that would give health-and-safety officials palpitations. Below is Asmundarstakkur. “It’s nice,” Johan says. Actually, it’s not. It’s extraordinary: basalt cliffs like monstrous organ pipes; waterfalls; gulls; sea to infinity. When the cliffs are spotlit by the sun setting beneath clouds I experience something approaching religious awe. Maybe those first settlers experienced something similar. These islands seem fantastical even while you’re here. They are places of ethereal, edge-of-the-world visions. To visit is to star in your own myth. I doubt that new flights or a Hilton hotel can alter that. The clouds boil and haze the view. The gulls, cliffs and sea disappear, and I’m uncertain whether they ever really existed at all.

JAMES STEWART is a freelance journalist.

This article was first published in The Times. It has been republished with permission of the author.

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