The first snows have fallen on the sharp ridge below the 700-metre summit of Víkartindur. Walking the village path towards Saksun, we looked across to the ridge of peaks that run along the spine of the neighbouring island of Eysturoy. The jagged landscape was bathed in golden winter light and in the distance the Atlantic was a giant silvered mirror.
We saw no one else on the eight-mile walk, just a few white mountain hares darting among the rocks. As it is hunting season, my local guide, Høgni Reistrup, had checked with local farmers that no one would be shooting where we were walking. Hiring a guide makes sense on these steep slopes where the weather is notoriously changeable, and mists can descend quickly.
With about 300 days of rain a year, the rise of tourism in the Faroe Islands has been something of a novelty. Numbers have doubled over the past eight years, largely thanks to innovative social media campaigns showing craggy peaks, cuddly sheep and rustic wooden houses. But, whether tourists should pay to walk in these mountains and sheep pastures is a hot topic.
Currently, anyone, local or foreigner, can walk along countryside village paths, but many of the places made famous by social media influencers are on private land where there is no automatic right to roam. Some farmers are now taking advantage of ancient Faroese land law to cash in on the increasing number of walkers wanting to explore the dramatic landscape.
Charges have been introduced at several tourist hotspots (usually 200 Danish króna – about £23), including at the famous “floating lake” at Trælanipa, the lagoon at Saksun, and the sea stacks at Dunnesdrangar. Next summer there are plans to charge walkers to hike the Faroes’ highest peak, the 880-metre Slættaratindur. Meanwhile, the most westerly island, Mykines, has already introduced a £60 tourist fee and restricted access to the puffin nesting areas that attract many thousands of visitors. Landowners say the money is in compensation for disturbance to farming and wildlife.
Tourism now turns over almost £100m per annum – about 6% of the islands’ GDP. There are just 55,000 Faroese, but visitor numbers are around 110,000 annually, most of them arriving in June, July and August. This figure includes about 40,000 who visit for a few hours on cruise ships. A new tourism strategy launched this month aims to make the most of the idea that for visitors and locals alike, the islands embody the concept of “Heim” (home).
Guðrið Højgaard, the director of Visit Faroe Islands says the aim is that local people should own at least 80% of the tourism industry. She accepts, however, that the speed of tourism development has taken the islands by surprise. “The last thing we want is for Faroese people to see tourists as a problem.”
As numbers have risen, I’ve had to take on guides. It’s fair that farmers get a share of tourist revenue
Jóhannus Kallsgarð, farmer
I’ve been walking in these mountains for more than a decade, and have seen a degree of tension arise between the business of tourism and Faroese farmers. Recently, for the first time, two hikers were fined by police for trespassing after refusing to pay to visit one of the most popular viewpoints in the islands. It happened on Kalsoy, now known informally as the “James Bond island” because it was used as the location for the climax of No Time to Die.
The local farmer, Jóhannus Kallsgarð, has enterprisingly erected a granite gravestone marking Bond’s fictional resting place, and his clifftop pasture attracted more than 15,000 walkers this summer. He charged a fee of 200 Danish króna this year, and a shuttle-bus service was introduced to relieve pressure on the tiny inter-island car ferry that brings visitors to the island.
“My family has farmed here for 15 generations, and as a boy I barely saw outsiders in the village from one month to the next. We welcome tourists, and in 2019, I took more than 200 walking groups to the lighthouse,” Kallsgarð says. “As numbers have increased, I’ve had to take on guides to help people hike safely, as every year we have guests slipping on the path and injuring themselves. I think it’s fair that farmers get a share of tourist revenue.”
I don’t like the idea of paying a fee to visit nature. But protecting the land is necessary – perhaps through a government tourist tax
The issue of whether too many tourists are having an effect on the land is being debated. Høgni Hoydal, the minister for trade and industry, says plans will be put before parliament to regularise the issue of public access to the land. “Farming was our life-blood for centuries,” he says, “and our oldest written document is the ‘Sheep Letter’ from 1298, which sets out the rules about compensation for trespass. But if tourists pay a fee, or environment tax, then we need to ensure the money is used to protect nature. And, I don’t think people should be charging without offering a service.”
According to the tourist board, the issue of public access must be decided by the politicians. “Almost all of our land is reserved for sheep,” says Højgaard, “and we recognise that our historic relationship with these animals is part of what makes the Faroes an authentic destination. However, we’re in control of how quickly tourism numbers will continue to rise, and I don’t think we have too many. It’s in balance.”
The numbers of tourists at the most popular spots remains relatively small, with about 80 people a day climbing Slættaratindur, and about 2,500 walking up the mountain in August. Inevitably, this far north, the increase in boots on the ground leads to erosion.
Óluva Zachariasen is a keen walker and a sheep owner who has set up a countryside association to draw attention to the issue among Faroese walkers. “In principle, I don’t like the idea of paying a fee just to visit nature. However, where there are high numbers of tourists or hikers of any nationality, protecting the land is necessary, perhaps through a government tourist tax. It’s an emotive cultural issue for us Faroese, and we have a long history of disputes in our islands over grass and soil.”
The trip was provided by Guide to Faroe Islands . Smyril Line sails twice weekly from Hirtshals in Denmark with seven-night packages including ferry (plus vehicle); seven nights’ accommodation in Tórshavn from £1,032pp