By Matisse Johnson
Around the world, millions of people are staying indoors to slow the spread of COVID-19. For adventurous spirits, it’s a burning question of when we will travel again and the proper safety restrictions that will be faced. Many have had to cancel spring and summer trips, and remain hopeful for fall. We know that the relative future will involve stricter safety measures; Airlines such as JetBlue, have started to require customers to wear face coverings. However, the desire for wanderlust is getting stronger for many. What may be just a glimpse into the future of travel or our new reality, is virtual travel.
Like many sectors, travel is making a shift to utilizing technology more and COVID-19 is pushing that shift to be faster. Why wait for quarantine to be over when jaw-dropping virtual experiences, stories, and content from around the world are waiting for us. In many areas it is still crucial to stay home — it’s nice to go on a little getaway.
Virtual travel is taking many different forms. Lake Tahoe has centralized podcasts, workouts, and activities to enjoy from home and Google Arts & Culture has put together the ultimate virtual travel journey catalog. But those of us with a more off the grid style, who love some time across the pond, can really have the best experience when heading across the web to the Faroe Islands.
The Faroe Islands is a self-governing Nordic region part of Denmark with a population of 50,000 and a sheep population of 80,000. The islands are a popular destination, especially in the summers with sunshine lasting as long as 22 hours and towns buzzing by the rugged coast. Highlights of the Faroe Islands include scenic hiking, riding the unique breed of horses, called føroyska rossið, or spending the day sailing under outstanding cliffs. A puffin encounter at the Vestmanna Bird Cliffs, a thrill from a helicopter ride, or a moment of silence taking in the incredible beauty of the grasses and water won’t be rare for a tourist of the Islands, and that even goes for traveling at home.
The Faroe Islands has introduced Remote Tourism — a way to explore the islands with brand new technology that puts the adventure in the hands of tourists. By inputting a virtual travel experience controlled via smartphone and viewed via go pro, the islands have revolutionized their current tourism program. In short, a real person goes on the tour, and travelers from home take turn with the control.
In addition to virtual travel, the Faroe Islands have put out a plea to refrain from visiting until June 30 of this year at the earliest, however, the date may extend. While it may be best to still wait before booking a hotel in Tórshavn or Airbnb around Runavík, this corner of the earth is still very much work experiencing.
Visitors use their computer or phone keypad to turn, walk, run and jump, controlling the movements of a local in real time. We have created a new remote tourism tool, the first of its kind. Via a mobile, tablet or PC, you can explore the Faroes’ rugged mountains, see close-up its cascading waterfalls and spot the traditional grass-roofed houses by interacting – live – with a local Faroese, who will act as your eyes and body on a virtual exploratory tour.” The Faroe Islands wrote in its Remote Tourism About. This includes exploring the region of the foot, maybe taking a scenic hike to a waterfall, or heading up to the sky for a birds-eye view of the rugged coastal countryside, and of course, the famous Faroese sheep. The tours take place every few days with smooth support of the tourist board team going live Instagram and Facebook to answer questions from participants.
In their Remote Tourism USA Press Release, Guðrið Højgaard, Director of Visit Faroe Islands, stated “When the travel bans began to escalate, we sat and wondered how we could recreate a Faroe Islands’ experience for those who had to cancel or postpone their trip to the Faroe Islands, and for everyone else stuck at home. The result is this new platform that enables those in isolation to take a walk across our wild landscapes and to explore beyond their own four walls.”
In their first live streams which launched on April 15th, the tours have traveled through any array of adventure, allowing participants to take control of the joystick for one minute turns. Some of the destinations explored so far have been Gjógv, a colorful village on the coast, Sundalagio, a dark blue strait which virtual travelers kayaked on, Gasadalur to get up close and personal with horses, and to a breathtaking waterfall near Mulafoss on a crisp run with one of the locals.
One of the best parts of the experience is the content which tells the story of small businesses around the islands. As visitors, we get to “enjoy” coffee and cake at the Gjaargardur Guesthouse, meet the church verger in funningur who has worked there for the past 54 years, and sail with local skippers.
The “real-life computer game” is an escape for homebound travelers, as well as a fantastic partnership between people around the world and locals of the islands while supporting the tourism industry. The effect of COVID-19 has reached all parts of the globe and has had devastating effects; restoration of the sector will be in our future. While planes remain landed and operations remain at standstill, there are still ways to create goodness. “We believe that our remote islands are the perfect place to inspire people in lockdown – and, naturally, we hope to welcome them in person once everyone is free to travel again,” said Højgaard.
Of course, the future of virtual travel will start to become the questions as travel in real life starts again. But we know it will always be a supportive alternative. I spoke with PR Director Súsanna E. Sørensen to learn more.
How is the virtual tourism project going? What has been the response of tourists and locals?
We are overwhelmed by the response to our new Remote Tourism initiativ both by locals but in particular by tourists. We have so far had almost 190,000 users from over 190 different countries visiting our website and the facebook live streams are followed by between 5,000 and 10,000 people for each tour. Also we get a lot of comments and positive feedback from the people who are following the facebook live stream. Quite a lot of the comments are from people who have had to cancel trips to the Faroe Islands, and see the live tours as a nice subsitute until they are able to travel again. The purpose of the initiative was to reach out to those who had to cancel, so we are happy to see those comments.
What were some of the challenges with starting the project?
The main challenges were to find out which equipment to use, it took some trial and error before we felt confident that we had the right solution, another challenge was making sure that the places we go have good 4G coverage. We pride ourselves with one of the best 4G coverage in the world, but we still had to make sure we chose places with as good coverage as possible.
Can you tell us your favorite virtual tour so far or about a memorable moment?
There have been many memorable moments, but maybe the tour to Gásadalur is worth mentioning. Gásadalur is know for its impessive waterfall, towards the end of the tour, people asked on facebook comments if the the guide could go to the waterfall. She was quite far away, so she had to run to make it, you could hear how she was out of breath and time was ticking, but she made it just 2 minutes before time was up and the tour ended. The followers on fb were thrilled and the view of the waterfall was fantastic.
When the Faroe Islands open again for travel, what are you most looking forward to?
I am looking forward to being able to welcome guests who really want to travel to the Faroe Islands and experience our nature and culture. I am also looking forward to meeting these people in town, at restaurants and cafees and in our shops and museeums and galleries.
Do you think virtual tourism will keep going even when it’s safe to travel again?
I don’t think that virtual tourism can replace experiencing a place in real life, but I think that virtual tourism can give people a glimpse of what a destination can offer and thereby inspire them to chose a place, that they might not have thought of.
Images: Kirstin Vang / Visit Faroe Islands