Miðvagur is a waterside village on the Faroese island of Vagár, just a mere hop and a skip from the airport. The houses are scattered on the slopes of the rolling green hills like a bunch of coloured blocks casually thrown at the hillside. I met Jana in the church car park at the allotted time. The sun was shining – which is no mean feat on the Faroe Islands – and I was hopeful it would follow us on our hike. Jana was taking me along Sorvagsvatn lake to the cliffs at Traelanipa.
Although it was after 10am, the path was practically empty of other walkers. It wasn’t till our journey back later that we saw the hoards. Jana told me that we’re walking on private land and it’s the landowner’s responsibility to keep the path in good condition. They re-gravelled it last year but it’s already showing signs of erosion under the sheer amount of visitor footfall. If the path isn’t looked after, walkers are more tempted to meander from the requisite route and that can lead to erosion and trampling of the delicate ecosystem. There’s no car-parking fee but there’s a voluntary honesty box on the gate. No one puts anything in, she says.
I caught a couple of people getting their insta fix but it wasn’t till later that I looked on Instagram and found a whole lot more precarious selfies. As we walked back, I asked Jana about the sudden influx of tourists and if they, the locals, minded. She told me that tourism on the Faroe islands had really only taken off as recently as 2015 as a result of the solar eclipse. It had been heavily marketed because it was one of the few places in Europe you could see it in full and many did indeed come. Eleven thousand, apparently. It really had put the islands on the map and that, coupled with new and invigorated staff at the tourist office, has resulted in a lot more media attention throughout Europe.
I’d googled for a few image ideas and had half an inkling these were impressive landscapes I was going to witness but I hadn’t realised they were so insta-famous already. The reason for the insta-celebrity is the spot at which you can see the lake above the cliffs and the crashing waves of the sea below. You can get it all in frame if you stand on the already worn-to-mud spot. With the squalls of wind chasing about me and my perilously balanced camera bag full of kit, I wasn’t too keen.
Overtourism is something that has been on my mind a lot recently, partly as a result of following Greg Dickinson’s articles in the Telegraph but also because, in studying for the MSc, I’ve been pondering the question of how effective money from tourism is in making a genuinely positive impact in supporting environmental causes. To visit a destination at such an early stage in its tourism journey is quite a coup, but I wondered if there were other places on the islands that were just as stunning and photo-worthy. Yes, said Jana, resoundingly. There are plenty of eminently beautiful spots, but the locals don’t necessarily want to share them all. These are places in which birds, animals and occasionally people live closely with the seasons and the land. They’ve already seen reductions in bird populations along this hike since it became so inundated with walkers. She thinks there could be perhaps one or two more spots widely marketed to the world that could take the pressure of this one and the other famous spot overlooking Múlafossur waterfall at Gasadalur.
Do they want more tourists, I asked. Absolutely, she says, but the right kind of tourist. The islands aren’t ready for the huge influx of mass tourism, there just isn’t the infrastructure in place yet. She then recounted a story of a Russian woman who flew in on the morning flight, embarked on the Traelanipa walk in a pencil skirt, white stilettos and a leather jacket and promptly flew home on an evening flight. We laughed. But this is a horrifying example unsustainable tourism. Where do people get these ideas from? Oh yeah….all the photos. All the instagrams. All the travel writing….