The one place at the top of my now-scrapped 2020 travel bucket list was the Faroe Islands.
I've had my eye on this remote archipelago situated between Scotland and Iceland where people are outnumbered by sheep for years. With a unique culture and landscape, it seems to be a photographer's dream and the perfect territory for an epic road trip. It's not the easiest place in the world to get to, but thanks to direct flights from my newly adopted home town of Edinburgh, I was sure this would be the year I'd make it.
But then along came coronavirus. All of my travel plans for the coming months immediately went out of the window and I discarded my hopes of visiting the Faroes anytime soon. Until, that is, this Tuesday, when an intriguing email landed in my inbox promising me a visit to the islands from the comfort of my own home.
Starting on Wednesday, curious tourists can take a hike, go kayaking or jump in a helicopter in the Faroes from their sofa thanks to a new remote tourism initiative. Through a web interface, people from anywhere in the world can take control of a Faroese person equipped with a live camera and microphone in minute-long blocks, telling them where to go and what to look at.
"When the travel bans began to escalate, we 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," said Guðrið Højgaard, director of Visit Faroe Islands, in a statement. "The result is this new platform to enable those in isolation to take a walk across our wild landscapes, to regain a sense of freedom and to explore beyond their own four walls."
In a preview of the experience, I explored a Faroese village with its traditional grass-roof houses. I had several opportunities to tell my guide — who was narrating the experience in real time — to jump, look left and right and run along a precariously rocky beach.
At one point while it was my turn at the joypad, he mused over how strange having his movements controlled by someone in a foreign country. He wondered if I was in the US or Japan, and whether I was interacting with him from my desk or while sitting on the toilet (I promise it was the former).
I usually get out of the city and into the Scottish countryside every weekend, so the opportunity to even imagine being somewhere remote provided a real break from being locked up in my house. It obviously wasn't the same as being there myself and feeling the sea breeze on my skin, but being connected to someone who was allowed me to live vicariously through them for that short time.
With flights canceled all over the world and people being warned not to leave their homes, tourism is one of the industries most adversely affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Tourism accounts for 10% of global GDP and the World Travel and Tourism Council estimates 50 million jobs are at risk. Many destinations and travel businesses are faced with novel challenges they've never before encountered. Outreach to potential future tourists who are currently stuck at home could make all the difference.
The Faroe Islands has a history of plucky tourism initiatives, including strapping cameras to sheep and uploading the footage to Google (for "Google Sheep View") and closing the islands once a year to everyone except for a bunch of volunteers who help with island maintenance.
I was already sold on the Faroes as a destination, but my virtual press trip still managed to make me hungry for more. That's not possible right now, but I'm already looking forward to the day when it's safe again and I'm able to explore those fjords, clifftops and grass-roofed villages on my very own two feet.