On the last weekend in April, the Faroe Islands closes down to regular tourists for a popular campaign they call ‘closed for maintenance’. The voluntourists who come that weekend help repair and maintain the natural attractions that bring more than 100,000 visitors to the remote islands during the rest of the year.
Part of developing a more sustainable version of tourism for a self-governing archipelago of 50,000 in the North Atlantic perched between Iceland and Scotland, it offers a model for how small communities can develop tourism sustainably while retaining their unique culture.
Closed for Maintenance began in 2019, when 105 voluntourists from 25 countries worked on ten projects to restore and maintain selected sites in collaboration with district councils and local volunteers, getting free room and board in exchange for their labour.
And its popularity has grown as more people learn about it. In 2020, when registration opened, 5,886 voluntourists from 95 different countries signed up within 24 hours for one of the 100 available places. The pandemic forced a postponement that year and in 2021, it was limited only to islanders. But more than 4,300 people signed up for the latest round that took place in April 2023.
One of the original volunteers, Lene Finnestad, a doctor from Oslo, said she would happily do such a project again. “We worked in collaboration, befriending Faroese people and other volunteers. We all had very similar values. You actually feel like you’ve given something back instead of just consuming what the country has to offer.”
“I think we can say that the ‘Closed’ initiative has been a huge success,” says Súsanna Sørensen, marketing manager of leisure and public relations for Visit Faroe Islands. “We needed the promotion/PR to make people aware of the initiative; but the work has always been about maintaining and improving areas that needed attention.”
Currently the islands see about 110,000 visitors, half from cruise ships that visit Tórshavn for a few hours. But hikers and sightseers impact the fragile grass and thin northern soil at attractions like the puffin colony on Mykines island, natural rock harbour at Gjógv and high cliffs at Trælanipa, where the archipelago’s largest lake seems to float hundreds of metres above the Atlantic.
The pandemic pause gave islanders a chance to reflect on their tourism approach. “We talked a lot about how we could ensure that the re-opening of the country post-COVID would not all be about numbers,” Sorensen said. “At the same time, we also acknowledged that the tourism industry was in a place where they needed to bring back business.”
She believes Visit Faroe Islands’ bottom-up strategy has the potential to spread the benefits of tourism across the country’s 18 North Atlantic islands and open up job opportunities beyond farming, particularly for women. And it has brought back young people, she says.
“Only a few years ago, everyone talked about … how young people did not move back home after studies abroad and how the population was declining. Now, we are more than 50,000 people in the Faroe Islands — the most we have ever been — with young people moving back; and we are increasingly proud of what we have and who we are.”
For the Faroese, sustainability is a virtue. Over 50% of its electricity comes from renewable energy sources and it aims to be fully sourced solely from renewable energy by 2030. Its 70,000 sheep are an attraction in their own right. For one thing, they mow the grass roofs of the houses. Back in 2016, for example, the sheep featured in ‘Sheep View’, a campaign to get Google Street View to visit.
Sustainable tourism: why the Faroe Islands closed for maintenance. Guardian, May 8, 2019
A sustainable tourism development strategy towards 2025. Visit Faro Islands.
Closed for maintenance: How the Faroe Islands shook up the voluntourism game. The Independent, Aug. 26, 2022
Sheepview 360 in the Faroe Islands. Visit Faroe Islands.