Faroe Islands at a Crossroads

The Faroe Islands are at a crossroads. Do we want to be a modern globalised society or do we want to hold on to our traditional way of life? Or… is it possible to combine these two?

A presentation held by Elin Brimheim Heinesen for Heads of Diplomatic Missions in Iceland, 23 May 2009

We must face the fact that even if the Faroes has the highest birth rate in Europe, this cannot quite compensate for the emigration from the islands. Our economic situation is not as bad as in many other countries, but the world economic crisis is taking its toll here as well, and unemployment rates and deficits of finances are increasing at the moment. We must cope with these problems. But there seems to be a bright light at the end of the tunnel. We’re constantly being told by outsiders that we are sitting on a gold mine, but most Faroese have just not realised how to utilise this gold yet…

Facing Great Challenges
It is a fact, though, that we, as it is, face great difficulties if we are reluctant to change. The population of the Faroes has not increased since the 80s. In fact, the number of young people and women on the islands is decreasing, because these people are moving out of the Faroes in growing numbers – most to the Danish mainland. If we hadn’t Europes highest birthrate of 2,6 children per couple we would really be in trouble.

We face great challenges, indeed. Unless we do something to attract younger people and women, our society could develop into a society only for elderly people and occasional visitors. If we want the Faroes to be a place that also attracts other people than just tourists in the summer and Faroese living abroad coming home for holidays, we need to tackle the challenge of globalisation in a wise and responsible way.

Need To Attract Women And Young People
The education level of the Faroese people has risen considerably in the last 30 years, but there is a lack of career-opportunities suitable for a well-educated workforce. The first challenge is to establish new industries that attract a more diverse and well-educated workforce – and not least, along with that, we must create an educational environment that attracts young students, perhaps from foreign countries as well. It is good that some young people leave to study elsewhere, but it is not good for society that every ambitious youngster leaves. We must be able to provide a satisfying livelihood for people of all ages and sexes and with different educations, so more people will want to live in the Faroes all year round.

While we are eager to move into the 21st century we still deeply value our old traditional ways of life in the Faroes. We don’t want development to totally destroy society as it is. Of course we want to keep and preserve the good things we already have for as long as possible. But they should not get in the way of development and keep us at a standstill, because that would cause more emigration of especially women and young people, which we so much need – especially if we want to reproduce and maintain our population level.

It is very important that we realise that losing these people is damaging to our society. And we will keep losing more and more of them if we’re not offering them new and modern challenges, which they crave. It is glaringly obvious that many of these people are not attracted to jobs in our traditional trade and industry. So perhaps it is high time that we start to prioritise a little differently than we have before.

The Fishing Industry
Fish and fish products is by far our greatest export. However, it is risky to be solely dependent on fishery which, among other things, is very susceptible to environmental changes and price fluctuations. But most people in the Faroes have been dependent on fishery or farming for centuries. This is what they know and understand. Fishery will and should still provide a significant part of our income, because the Faroes will always be an island community in the middle of a huge ocean full of fish, hopefully, but there is no reason not to explore innovation and development of alternative businesses as well. If not for any other reason then just to make sure that more women and young people also want to live here.

Must Develop New Business Opportunities
Tourism, for instance, is the second largest industry in the world and has a potential for a lot of jobs – in fact a huge variety of different jobs, that greatly appeal to especially young people and women that often like to take service jobs, creative jobs and other jobs where they get to work directly with or for people.

The Faroese have invested billions of Danish Kroner in equipment used for fishing. It is high time that we now invest more extensively in ‘equipment’ used for fishing tourists, because it is potentially a very profitable business from the mere fact that there are a lot more tourists available for catching out there than there are tons of fish! People should know that the value of a single tourist, for instance, is in fact comparable to the value of half a ton of cod.

But just as fish don’t jump ashore from the sea, tourists don’t just appear on their own initiative – maybe a few, but the vast majority doesn’t. We also need ‘equipment’ for fishing tourists. That means that resources must be made available for the development of products that attract tourists and for marketing the products so the tourists out there will know about their existence.

What Is The Attraction?
But do we have anything special to offer in comparison to other places? Well, many foreigners tell us that we are quite unique. In November 2007 the magazine National Geographic Traveler rated us as island destination no. 1 in the world. According to their panel of 522 travel experts, we are the best and most attractive islands in the world ahead of The Azores, Hawaii and the Bahamas and other fantastic island destinations. Weighing up environment, ecology and culture, the magazine placed the Faroes first for “integrity of place”. This was a rating that gave this small country priceless publicity around the world and triggered an avalanche of media attention – at least in comparison with what we were accustomed to previously where football and pilot whaling were the only subjects the international media would want to write about.

Most Unspoilt Islands In The World
It turns out that some of our greatest advantages are, that we don’t have McDonalds, we don’t have Starbucks, we don’t have Hilton. It seems that this is very much appreciated by our guests that we have escaped globalisation so far in that aspect. At the same time as people are living the modern life in the capital city, Tórshavn, where you can find four stars hotels and restaurants, cafés and nightlife, we’ve retained our primitive character in many aspects – especially out in the smaller villages. We’re rough and ready in some respects, such as the way we don’t yet have a highly developed hospitality industry and we haven’t taken what we do and turned it into a tourist simulacrum. We’re not trying to artificially recreate our past as Vikings to ‘please’ the tourists – we’re still truly living reminiscences of a Viking life built on ancient traditions of which some have survived all the way from Viking age.

A Competitive Advantage
You could say: We are the real thing! Although we have fantastic natural attractions, spectacular sceneries and wildlife, and lie as close as just two hours flight from metro poles like London and Copenhagen, we’re not ‘touristy’ at all in comparison with most other countries in the world.

These facts can in fact become our strongest selling points in the competition with other tourist destinations. It is extremely important in marketing to be able to claim difference. We are very lucky that we can honestly claim difference when it comes to being unspoilt – at least in comparison with other countries – especially in these days where pollution, climate change and global warming is very much on the agenda and everybody shouts about how sustainable and responsible they are in order to get a competitive advantage.

But we are in fact a little bit ahead because we know exactly how to live in balance with nature in a sustainable way, because we’ve done that forever. But we don’t shout about it, because it has always been like that and we hardly even notice it ourselves. If we want to keep this advantage I think it is absolutely crucial that we make ourselves aware of our distinctive qualities, and we should be very cautious not to jeopardise these qualities – and make sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water in carelessness!

Need To Keep The Balance
We have the capacity to increase the number of tourists twice, maybe three times more than we have today – and still remain unspoilt. But in my opinion, we should not aim for greater numbers than that. Right now, I know that there are people in the tourism industry in the Faroes that are quite worried, because tourism is slack – especially the passenger transport companies and the bigger hotels, because they need to fill their seats, cabins or hotel beds to keep their businesses running. They are dissatisfied with the fact that we haven’t managed to get more tourists to come. They have started to believe that maybe our islands aren’t that attractive after all.

But we should not underestimate our attraction potential. What we have to offer is rare and in demand out there somewhere. It’s just up to us to cultivate the right offers and to reach out for the right market. Information travels very fast and widely today and we will put in our best efforts to make the Faroes better known for exactly the qualities that we know are in demand. When people out there will know about us, and they will eventually, a whole other scenario could become reality, maybe all of a sudden, if the world economic crisis turns around. International travel experts have foreseen this and have therefore for quite a while been recommending that we should prepare ourselves. They say the tourists will come. It’s not a question of whether they will come or not, it’s a question of when.

Turn Disadvantages To Advantages
Our remote location, our doubtful meteorological conditions and the relatively difficult, fairly expensive and not too frequent access to the islands, which in itself scares many people off, might perhaps be the best attraction of them all for some people, because it makes these people able almost to have these islands to them selves. And for this they would be willing to pay a lot of money.

Maybe we should stop trying to rush into mass tourism where we never will be able to compete anyway. We should instead put our efforts in attracting not just anyone, but the right people that value and respect us for what we are and what we have, and would be willing to pay for the experience, instead of attracting people that consume our country the cheapest way possible as if it was only meant for their amusement like some kind of Disneyland.

There is no need for us to adapt our country to the needs of the kind of visitors that strain our nature and culture, in fact just harming the tourism industry in the long run, and thus compromise our integrity as if we were only exhibits in an anthropological museum. We must do this right. It is, however, of course important, in the process of analysing and finding out what to do next, to listen to what other people – foreigners – have to say about us and look at what they value here. What is it that they find attractive? And we should act accordingly – but in a way where we make sure that there is a balance between what we want and what they want. I think that it is evident already that it is possible to combine those things relatively easily, if we choose the right strategy.

Nature and Culture Tourism
It is a fact that there is increasing world wide interest in responsible tourism such as green tourism, geo- or ecotourism. This kind of tourism is also the fastest growing type of tourism in the world right now with a growth of 20 to 34 % a year in recent years. It is obvious that it pays to focus on this kind of tourism because these tourists spend much more money in the local community than the usual ‘mass tourists’ do. These tourists don’t want to spend money on international hotels or restaurant chains but rather on local restaurants, bed and breakfasts and taverns.

These tourists are also very much interested in local culture and tradition. They can even contribute to revive some of our traditions that are about to disappear. They would even come here only for that particular purpose – to revive traditions like rappelling and catching birds at the sea cliffs or learning to build the Faroese boat in the old Viking way, just to mention a few examples.

I think that one of the greatest assets the Faroese people have, is their traditions for handicrafts, musicality and creativity. We have a very inspiring nature and climate – very changeable – which many claim really boosts creativity and creates a humble attitude towards overpowering facts of life, to which we are confronted everyday here on our islands. No wonder that the Brits that occupied us during World War 2 named us the ‘Land of Maybe’. And no wonder that the amount of magnificent creative artworks is pouring out of the islands in impressive amounts. But the people here are not shouting about it because it comes so natural. Most of the world, therefore, never becomes aware of all the hidden gems that can be found here.

Come And Get Inspired In A Safe Destination
What can we do about it? How can we use these resources to benefit us and others? Nowadays, many people in the western world build their livelihoods on their ability to be creative. Many people also have a need for spiritual fulfilment that they don’t get in their everyday life in overcrowded stressful big cities. There is a great possibility for us to meet these demands and still hold on to our authenticity. We could build a strong experience economy on that. Millions of people out there might very well need input and inspiration of the sort we have to offer – and in order to get that, they need what they don’t get at home. They need simplicity, security, peace of mind and to be refreshed in an environment that inspires creativity and spirituality.

As it happens, the Faroes are just perfect for exactly that! The Faroes have a lot to offer in this respect! And this is not just me claiming that – this is what I hear an ever-increasing number of travel experts and other visitors say time and again.

More and more people in the world seem to search for something special to take an interest in. And many consider the Faroes very special once these islands have caught their attention. We can offer a more unspoiled less polluted society and a challenging and literally breathtaking nature than most of our competitors can – and still with all the modern conveniences and comfort that makes people feel safe.

The fact that a lot of people consider the world an unsafe place to be these days, especially after 9-11, makes people somewhat nostalgic. They long for a backwardness towards something that once felt safer. The Faroes is a place that is quite safe in that respect. Actually it is the most crime-free place on earth according to recent research/statistics – and it seems to appeal to people for that reason also. This is something we can use to our advantage.

Why Aren’t There More Tourists?
You might ask: But if these islands are so wonderful – why isn’t there a lucrative tourism industry here already? Although the Faroe Islands are not far from the European mainland, this destination has until now been considered a little too remote for most people because the islands were not very accessible in the past. It is risky business for the transportation companies to open new or more frequent routes because so few live on the islands (only around 50,000). They cannot afford to wait for customers and so therefore only routes that are able to turn over a profit quickly are likely to be kept open. That has made it difficult to build up a more extensive tourism industry. This has, on the other hand, helped us keep our islands unspoiled – until now at least.

It always boils down to the same problem: Because we are a very small country we don’t have a lot of money on our hands. Even if we can afford to give the Icelanders a comparatively big loan and build extremely expensive sub sea tunnels, our tourism marketing budgets are very small in comparison with our competitors’ budgets. Politicians tend not to have the proper understanding of how huge the potential is in tourism, which means that they don’t invest in it. So we will probably need investment from outsiders to kick this off – or… we really need to be creative in our efforts to tell the world out there that there is something valuable for them here. Communication skills are therefore absolutely essential for us!

New Marketing Opportuinites
Fortunately for us the internet is revolutionising marketing today. It is possible now to reach out much further than it was just a few years ago. We can’t afford expensive marketing campaigns anyway, so we need to target our marketing to niche markets. And because we can reach much further out, niche markets have become much bigger. I am absolutely sure, that there is much to be gained by focusing on niche markets that demand the qualities I have mentioned before in this presentation. But how do we reach the right people?

It is a fact that big international companies have realised that traditional marketing is not as effective any longer. Traditional advertising campaigns seem to have very little effect when it comes to reaching people under the age of 35. New ways of marketing are therefore on their way instead. Today, even big companies like Nike are using “word of mouth marketing”, social media like Facebook and YouTube and ambassador strategies quite extensively. They have realised a long time ago that this is a very effective way of marketing and put a lot of effort to it.

Effective marketing has very much to do with networking – to create attention by being well connected to key persons around the world that could be your ambassadors – especially influential individuals or groups – people that other people look up to, like musicians, footballers and surfers, for instance. It is also important to be connected to people that really want to engage themselves – people that, for instance, have fallen in love with our islands – especially journalists and tour operators who are specialised in destinations, subjects or themes where the Faroe Islands are a perfect match.

It is about lighting small fires here and there by telling interesting stories that are easy for people to retell to others. We have an increasing number of ‘ambassadors’ that want to help us make the world aware of our country and its qualities. We can of course use more ambassadors, so we should make an effort to get connected to the right people that could help us build exactly the type of tourism that we want and keep feeding our connections with good interesting stuff that they would want to tell others as well.

Event making is also very effective. Cultural events seem to be very good icebreakers because many people – and not least the media – are interested in music and art and are willing to travel far to experience something unique. If they like it, they will hype it – and the Faroes gets more publicity. Focusing our efforts to create such events could also pave the way for more knowledge about the Faroes out there. We already have some success stories to build on and we should continue this work and encourage the Faroese people to engage in more event making.

We might not have that much money, but we have lots of good cards on our hands. If we play them well and use all the momentums, that we get along the way, wisely, we could create grounds for new profitable industries and a prosperous future for the people living on our wonderful islands.

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