Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Next Country

(Here's an article, written by Elin Heinesen, the managing director of SamVit.)

The Next Country

By Elin Heinesen,

Managing Director of SamVit – Faroe Islands Enterprise

(The Trade Council and Tourist Board)

The Faroe Islands have suddenly received a lot of media attention for other things than banking and expensive tunnels. Why has this happened? Maybe it happens because this country seems to be a combination of powerful ingredients that are hitting a nerve right now.

These are really exciting times in the Faroe Islands. Never before have the Faroe Islands been as visible in the media abroad as in recent months. In October 2007 Bill Clinton was invited to give a lecture in the Faroes and

the world press turned its eyes towards us. Clinton talked very enthusiastically about the Faroe Islands – especially in terms of environmental issues – and he declared that he was now an unofficial ambassador for the Faroe Islands. Immediately after his visit National Geographic Traveler named the Faroe Islands as the most appealing island destination out of a shortlist of 111 island communities. This result was reached by a panel of 522 experts in geotourism. This has resonated in the world press and provided us with priceless publicity.

In January Faroese design duo Guðrun & Guðrun chartered an airplane, filled it with the international fashion press and flew them to the Faroe Islands where they had a arranged a fantastic fashion show in an airplane hangar at the airport. The fashion show received rave reviews. In April, Nobel laureate, former presidential candidate, and one of the world’s leading environmental activists, Al Gore, visited the Faroe Islands as the keynote speaker at the TransAtlantic Climate Conference – an event that that also drew the eyes of the world to the Faroe Islands

Shangri La of the 21’st century

The international press has started to notice the Faroe Islands. It is not unusual to hear journalists make statements like the one Eric Campbell from Australian TV-show ‘Foreign Correspondent’ made, “The Faroe Islands could very well be the world’s next country!” One of the world’s leading experts in nation branding, Simon Anholt, similarly said, “The Faroe Islands is the Shangri La of the 21’st century!” In a New York Times article in 2007 with the headline, “Into the Mystical Unreal Reality of the Faroe Islands”, the Faroe Islands were described as “the most curious place left on earth” and the journalist Stephen Metcalf described his impression such: “The Faroes are easily the most moodily beautiful place I have ever been”.

Different from the rest of the world

There is reason to believe that there perhaps is a growing demand for what we have to offer. We can see that from the increase in attention we’re getting from e.g. journalists and researchers. However, we have also ourselves been trying to generate exposure. We have the talent, we have the technology and we are putting our story forward in the right places. We still haven’t seen the big boom, because it is comparatively expensive to get to the Faroe Islands, but the number of visitors is growing every year. And there is an increasing number of people who offer to be enthusiastic ambassadors for the Faroe Islands. People seem to be looking for someone/somewhere like us because we are a little bit different from the rest of the world.

Tradition and modernity side by side

We may be perceived as a little bit odd, because many people consider us to be remote – but we are actually in a great strategic position in the shipping lane between the two wealthiest continents in the world and are only a couple of hours’ flight from the big cities in Northern Europe. There is still something to be said about our remoteness, because our relative isolation from the outside world for centuries has meant that we have been able to preserve ancient traditions. You could say that the ‘backwardness’ of the Faroe Islands mixed with the modernisation and globalisation of society has placed the Faroe Islands in a unique position compared to other countries – we are both extremely old-fashioned and extremely modern at the same time. We are in the middle of the modern world with our feet firmly planted in tradition – and we are using this to our advantage.

This contrast gives us a very strong identity that some envy us; people who visit to experience this, can see this in everything we do. There are probably not that many places in the world where young people think it is cool to wear their national dress on national holidays, but in the Faroe Islands they do while living a life that is just as globalised as the rest of the modern world, messaging on their mobile phones, Skype and gaming on the Internet and iPods.

Always risk in development

We are aware of the danger of losing our special national identity, like so many other peoples, when globalisation really starts affecting our life. There are many Faroese people who do not value the Faroese traditions and wish to distance themselves from the ‘old’ and would like all of society to become fully globalised and hyper-modern as soon as possible. But there are also many who would like to hang on to the things that make us special or unique, since they consider those things the main reason why we have survived on these islands for so long. I think it is possible to combine things – to be modern and traditional at the same time.

We are in the middle of forming a new identity. I see it as an advantage that we are lagging a bit behind other countries in some areas, because that means that we can learn from others and perhaps avoid making mistakes that others have made. There will always be risk associated with all development, but we cannot isolate ourselves only to preserve a strong identity.

Finding the balance

We would like to make society more open and accessible, but in a way that will enable us to preserve the values that we have. We feel that this is possible by e.g. creating long-term strategies for tourism that will emphasise creating services and offers for the visitors that are based on what is here already rather than killing our traditions and change society to achieve some international modern norm – in a mistaken assumption of what we ‘think’ the modern tourist expects and demands. We must not go so far in modernising that we ruin the very things that make us different and interesting in the eyes of others. I do think that we can strike that balance.

A lot to offer to visitors

We are privileged to have the opportunity to welcome tourists with modern conveniences with three and four star hotels, gourmet restaurants and café-life in Tórshavn, but we can also offer them to go to the small villages and islands in the immediate vicinity of Tórshavn where they can participate in traditional Faroese farming life, which to them would be a different and interesting experience – to herd the sheep, building boats or rappelling from ropes on the cliff face. In this way the tourist can even be involved in reviving traditions that are threatened and inject life in the outlying islands where the population is dwindling – dwindling because the traditional village life and work is no longer profitable. It may now become profitable again through tourism.

The strengths of the Faroese people

The Faroe Islands is a bubbling cauldron of creativity. The concentration of artists and creative people is remarkable considering the number of inhabitants. I think it has something to do with the cocktail of a wild, raw, achingly beautiful nature and strong traditions mixed with globalisation which all creates a synergy that boosts creativity – especially among young people who are more global in their way of thinking than the older generations and therefore have a better understanding of how people think outside the Faroe Islands. They can use this to their advantage. The Faroe Islands is a combination of many powerful ingredients that are hitting a nerve right now.

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