At the press of a button on my mobile phone the camera swings left and a breathless voice explains that we are looking at Tíndholmur, a jagged sliver of rock in the sea channel off the Faroese village of Bøur. I can press a button to go left or right, and up or down. Rather cruelly, the on-screen controls also allow me to make the guide “run” and, bizarrely, “jump” on the spot. I can’t resist as the camera pans down onto a black sand beach and the disembodied voice declares (even more breathlessly) that he really enjoys running on sand. The highlight of this atavistic performance is when an anonymous user makes the guide head for slippery rocks and an incoming wave swamps his legs and feet, prompting a shout of “Oh God, I didn’t see that coming.”
An hour passes quickly in the online company of Levi, my guide, a former player for the Faroe Islands’ national football team, who is still very fit. Though it’s fair to say that at the end of it I have seen rather too much of the half-dozen alleyways of Bøur, which is home to only about 70 people. However, as the camera is propelled up and down the quiet roads and in between turf-roofed houses, I am immersed in the sounds and sights of the Faroes, rugged hills, misty sea-scapes and colourful grazing sheep.
In fact, this is not a computer game but an experience provided by a camera being worn by a real person – a “tour guide” – who responds to commands from anonymous people anywhere in the world. I feel like I’ve been back in the islands enjoying the fresh Atlantic breeze. Thanks to remote-tourism.com, a new marketing campaign launched on Wednesday, you too can exercise a very personal level of control over a Faroese person who has volunteered to be your guide.
This year should have seen tourism revenues double in these remote north Atlantic islands from a base of around £60m five years ago. Coronavirus has ended that ambition, but to combat at least some of those losses and keep the destination fresh in people’s minds, a new interactive online guide service has been launched. According to Guðrið Højgaard, director of Visit Faroe Islands, the remotely operated guide is “a unique platform to allow people in isolation to take a walk across our wild landscapes and regain a sense of freedom”.
The guides may be in kayaks, on horseback or hiking around the mountain villages. Being halfway between Shetland and Iceland has always meant that the Faroese have had to rely on their wits to survive. Scaling the cliffs to catch seabirds, herding sheep in the mountains or braving the North Atlantic in small fishing boats have, until very recently, all been an essential part of survival for the islands’ 50,000 people. And they have relied on their wits to market their islands, too. Højgaard was tasked with doubling Faroes tourist revenues over the past five years, and 2019 saw more than 100,000 visitors to the 18 islands.
She has overseen a number of innovative marketing schemes in the past few years. In 2017 it was Sheep View, where cameras were attached to some of the islands’ 80,000 sheep in a spoof version of Google Street View, and last year it was announced that for one weekend the country was Closed for Maintenance, and open only to 100 foreign volunteers who could travel to the islands to help maintain paths, erect signposts and landscape viewpoints at some of the most well trammelled beauty spots.
The remotely steered Faroese tours will be online twice daily at 2pm and 5pm (BST) for a period of 10 days initially. Users will have two minutes of control over the guide, who all speak English, but can rejoin the queue any number of times. The ability to operate a live streaming service smoothly is dependent on the islands’ super-fast broadband connections, which cover almost all of the territory and mean that, in spite of the remote location, internet download speeds are faster than in London, and second only to South Korea.
Having invested heavily in tourism marketing over the past few years, the current crisis has hit just when two 200-room hotels were about to open in the capital, Tórshavn, and the capital’s prestigious Hotel Føroyar is halfway through an ambitious building programme to double its room capacity. This was the year that should have seen bed-nights double to a total of 200,000 – excluding an unspecified number of Airnbnb rooms.
Tim Ecott’s latest book is The Land of Maybe: A Faroe Islands Year (Short Books, £14.99)