Voluntourism – Westerners visiting foreign countries, in order to ‘help’ while they holiday – has endured some extremely bad press in recent times.
The word now conjures images of gap year students visiting orphanages to improve their CVs, or laying brickwork so poorly that locals have to start over once they’ve gone. Many have written off the trend as insta-friendly, virtue-signalling do-goodery – a shame perhaps, given its often noble aspirations.
Now, voluntourism is being reclaimed, by the Faroe Islands. A collection of jagged crags huddled in the North Atlantic, the archipelago recently closed it’s top ten tourist sites for two days of maintenance, carried out, perhaps counter-intuitively, by teams of tourists.
They received bed and board, and in exchange carried out conservation work – erecting signposts, rebuilding cairns, constructing viewpoints and repairing paths. 110,000 people visited the islands last year, and, though hardly causing overcrowding, the footfall has threatened key natural beauty spots.
By all accounts, the initiative was a success: The teams exceeded expectation, and enjoyed a celebratory dinner with local beer and a Faroese DJ.
Why do tourists visit?
Several reasons – but mostly the scenery and the solitude. Awesome cliff formations, sheer yet verdant mountainsides, and a glut of windswept waterfalls, the Faroe Islands (between the Scottish Isles and Iceland) wrote the book on rugged, rocky, weather-beaten beauty, easily explored by car, kayak or walking boot.
The wilderness is dotted with little villages, invariably overlooking idyllic harbours or lagoons. There’s a smattering of eco-homes with grassy, turf roofs, while capital city Torshavn boasts a cosy waterfront lined with pastel-painted facades.
Wildlife watchers flock to see the island’s many, many puffins, and, though not a patch on the record-settings ratios of New Zealand, there are also more sheep than people.
A template for tourism
The 100 team members came from 3,500 applications – from as far afield as China and Australia – so the Faroes were not left wanting for demand. A similar project is now in the pipeline for 2020, and the Faroese will hope to strike a balance between raking in tourist takings, and allowing its awe-inspiring landscape to become a victim of its own success.
Faroese Prime Minister Aksel V. Johannesen was pleased with the project, but cautious: “We have a huge responsibility to our community and the beautiful environment that surrounds us,” he said. “While we welcome people from all over the globe … we need to preserve and protect what we have to ensure a sustainable future.”