“Like winning the lottery”: Why thousands of tourists are applying to help ‘fix’ a country

Each year, much of the Faroe Islands’ trails are closed for three days as part of the country’s ‘Closed for Maintenance’ initiative, where volunteers help the Atlantic island nation with much-needed repairs—from repaving footpaths to cleaning trails. Amy McPherson joins the 2023 program for an ‘active’ holiday of a different variety.

The sky was an unusual blue and the mood among the team was ecstatic. The hiking trail to the peak Slættaratindur, the Faroe Island’s highest mountain, was in bad shape and our team of 21 international and local Faroese volunteers was here to clean it up.

Watching each of us get to our assigned tasks, I couldn’t help but wonder: Just how much can a group of inexperienced foreigners achieve?

Each year, Visit Faroe Islands—the national tourism board—randomly selects 100 volunteers worldwide for ‘Closed for Maintenance, a voluntourism program created to market and raise awareness about the Faroe Islands’ nature attractions. Throughout their stay, volunteers are also expected to help mend paths, build fences, and clean up some of the hiking trails and cultural sites all around the Faroes after receiving some 110,000 visitors a year.

The concept of voluntourism is hardly new. For years, tourists with good intentions have been lured into opportunities around the world, fuelled by marketing slogans promising ‘authentic travel experiences’ as a voluntourist. It’s well documented that badly managed programs can provide participants a false sense of moral goodness, as well as harming the communities they visit.

During our drive to the project site, I asked Vanja Davidsen, one of the team leaders, whether there’s any tangible value for the Faroe Islands to have volunteers to work on the trails—or if it’s just really for marketing.

“Of course it’s marketing!” She laughs, surprisingly blunt. “But you see, it does also help. Imagine, every day, we have something that needs to repair, but with only one or two people to work on it, it will take forever,” she tells me. “But if we have 10 people on a section of the trail, a lot can be done.”

I was part of a team assigned to create a clearer trail for the hike up to the peak of Slættaratindur. Working in a production line, some of us dug up rocks to create a more visible path, flattened the route for safer footing using the dug-up rocks to level up uneven surfaces, and spray-painted way markers for directions. Another key task for all teams this year was installing ‘people counters’ at entrances to hiking trails and cultural attractions where the entrance is free—as there are currently no statistics on how many visitors each site receives.

Another participant, Terry Smith, who had come all the way from the US state of Georgia with his daughter, had to apply for a passport specifically for this trip. “Faroe Islands is just one of those places that I’ve wanted to see,” he said. “Without being on the program, I wouldn’t have had the chance to dance the traditional dance and feel like part of the family on the Faroe Islands. I can honestly say, this is the best trip of my life.”

Accommodation was provided in local houses by residents who opened up their homes to us. As a group, we shopped at the local store for supplies to make dinner and breakfasts. These communal meal times became a bonding time among the volunteers, both international and local. Lunch was delivered daily by a café in the village—perhaps a piece of fried cod, fresh salad and a drink, accompanied by shared jokes about how we’ll never see rocks the same way again.

Visit Faroe Islands had anticipated this challenge from landowners. The team worked to create an inclusive environment to ensure landowners are consulted and that local people are also encouraged to participate.

“I was working in a hotel in 2019 when Visit Faroe Islands asked if I could join ‘Closed for Maintenance’,” said Fríða Jóinsdóttir Joensen, one of the first of local volunteers and in whose house in the town of Eiði on the island of Eysturoy we were staying in. “I had a great time. I really enjoyed learning about people from all over the world.”

Unlike international volunteers, the Faroese applicants do not have to go through the selection process and are automatically accepted—the intention of the initiative is as much about bringing the community together as it is for marketing the archipelago. “More and more local people are now volunteering for the project each year,” said Alda, whose mother is among our team of path menders. “Although there will always be people who don’t understand it, we are getting more and more good feedback.”

Back in Tórshavn, I was keen to ask more locals for their opinion of the project. “What does someone from Berlin, from New York, from Singapore, know about how to work in our nature?” sighed a taxi driver in the Faroese capital Tórshavn when I asked how he felt about the ‘Closed for Maintenance’ program.

“How do you tell someone we have bigger storms than the Gulf of Mexico, and that our nature is very extreme but fragile at the same time,” he said. “They will be digging in the wrong places, maybe kill a bird nest. I am afraid, it [the program] just makes people think it’s OK to come and make things worse.”

This is representative of the fears held by some local people, but the reality is the three-day project is supervised and led by local experts. For example, the gardening company that advises on its area of expertise for the project volunteers its staff’s time and skills.

At a record shop in Tórshavn, Sólvá Svartafoss, who works there, thinks she might join next year’s program. “My aunt and mother both were on the program in previous years,” she said. “They had so much fun and both tell me I really should try it.

As my group all bid farewell at the completion, the smiles showed how great a time had been had by all. I also felt a strong bond between the international team members and their Faroese counterparts. For some of us who don’t often work outdoors, we also learned safety rules on working with heavy objects like rocks, as well as not to meddle with cairns on hikes.

My main takeaway from this spell in the Faroe Islands, and what most of the people I met also felt, was that nature, above all, is to be respected. While projects like ‘Closed for Maintenance’ may still largely be a marketing exercise, those who came got more from it than an interesting holiday experience: They learned to respect the land, the culture, and the people and developed a new appreciation for cooperation with local communities.

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