Creative thinking is key to survival

The Nordregio Forum session on sustainable tourism provided an insight into some of the many different strategies to survive and recover from the shock from the Covid-19 pandemic. The Faroe Islands came up with one of the most inventive and visible strategies with their Remote Tourism concept, which attracted several hundred thousand virtual visitors. Meanwhile, small tourism entrepreneurs around the Nordic countries did their best to adapt and find new opportunities in increased domestic tourism.

Remote Tourism – a Faroese success

The Faroe Islands have before managed to create a lot of buzz around their tourism campaigns, for example when they equipped a few of the country’s 80,000 sheep with cameras to object to the lack of Google Street View coverage of the islands, and also when they closed down their main tourist sites for maintenance. Faced by a lockdown and a near-total drop in tourism due to Covid-19, Visit Faroe Islands decided to act.

“Marketing is all about relevance, and you have to meet the needs of your customers,” says Guðrið Højgaard, Director of Visit Faroe Islands. “We knew that many of our customers were bored at home, so we decided to do something to entertain them and give them a sense of freedom. This is when we came up with the idea of Remote Tourism.”

The concept was equally simple and ingenious. The remote visitors could experience the magnificent and unspoiled nature of the Faroe Islands through the eyes of the locals, equipped with a live video camera, and could even control their movements in real-time. Or, as it says in a short video presentation of the concept: “When people pressed forward, we moved forward. When people pressed turn, we turned, and when people pressed jump – well – we jumped!” In addition to exploring the islands by foot, the virtual tourists could take a horseback ride, sail around the islands and even remote control a helicopter.

Attention from all over the world

“We normally have around 100,000 visitors annually, but during the quarantine, more than 700,000 people took a virtual tour of the Faroe Islands,” says Højgaard. According to Associated Press, the concept became the biggest tourism news story in the world with over 500 articles and an estimated online readership of 5.65 billion. In addition, travel influencers helped the Faroe Islands reach over 40 million people on social media. None of this publicity was paid for.

“For a small destination like ours, it’s important to be creative,” says Højgaard. She adds that the Faroe Islands have used the time during the pandemic to revisit their tourism strategy, which was launched in 2019. The strategy is called Join the Preservolution and has one key aim: to ensure the protection of the Faroese nature for the future.

Asked if she fears a ketchup effect when travel restrictions are lifted, Højgaard replies: “I don’t think we’ll be overflooded with tourists, because the competition will be fierce. But we’re very much aware of the need of being prepared when things get back to normal.”

Small tourism companies seek new paths

“When Covid-19 hit, all of our customers vanished,” says Minttu Heimovirta, co-founder of Pihka Outdoors, a small tour guide company in Finnish Lapland. The company specialises in personalised guided tours for small private groups, giving visitors a unique experience of the amazing landscapes, crispy fresh air and the silence and serenity of Lapland nature. Most of its customers are from central Europe, people with a keen interest in nature who come to Lapland for hiking tours, ski-trekking and other wilderness experiences.

Due to the pandemic, the number of passengers in Finnish airports decreased by 91 per cent in 2020, a drop which caused significant difficulties for companies relying on inbound international tourism. At the same time, the number of domestic tourists increased in Finnish Lapland, but the area’s tourism service providers quickly realised that their Finnish guests had entirely different needs than the traditional international clientele.

“It’s been a weird year,” Heimovirta says. “2020 was a record year for cabin rentals in Lapland, whereas the hotels suffered, at least until the ski season started. Shops have been doing great, but our restaurants have struggled. And from our own perspective, Finnish people don’t really need tour guides for their outdoor activities.”

New ideas to attract domestic tourists

The challenge for Heimovirta and her colleagues has therefore been to find ways to tap into the opportunities of increased domestic tourism. Pihka Outdoors started out by building a Finnish version of their website and also created an entirely new line of products targeted at this new group of potential customers. Up until now, however, this has only attracted a limited number of Finnish guests. Heimovirta and her partner Joona Kivinen therefore went back to the drawing board.

“Our latest initiative is the launch of the Pihka Outdoors Academy, where we offer courses for trekking and outdoor life in Finnish. Here, our aim is to educate people and introduce them to the outdoor skills and knowledge required to travel sustainably. As an example, the Finnish national parks have been under quite some pressure due to the extraordinary large number of visitors, many of which are not fully familiar with the rules in each park. We want to change this by educating people in sustainable nature tourism.”

Smaller companies play a vital role

During the session, many of the speakers emphasized the importance of helping small local tourism entrepreneurs through these difficult times, not least in light of their essential role in ensuring the social and environmental sustainability of tourism. Jonathan Yachin, researcher at Dalarna University, presented his analysis of entrepreneurship in micro-tourism companies and its value in a local and regional context.

“These companies are important actors in the tourism sector, especially in rural areas. They’re the ones who deliver tourism experiences through intimate encounters with customers and communicate and sustain local culture. What’s interesting is that they’re not just scaled-down versions of larger businesses. Rather than being driven primarily by growth, they have other objectives related to lifestyle and identity, creating a business out of their hobby and their appreciation of their local environment, place and people.”

These qualities are essential when it comes to the regional development aspects of tourism, Yachin argues. He, therefore, stresses the importance of involving these smaller companies in developing sustainable regional tourism strategies.

“Being small allows for flexibility and adaptability,” he explains, adding that this is characteristic of the way in which the micro-tourism entrepreneurs conduct their business. “They’re good at adapting to change and identifying new opportunities in their local environment, and they also play a vital role as agents of sustainable change. Therefore, it’s important to start talking about the long-term transformation of the system and how we can best support these entrepreneurs in their endeavours.”

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