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Faeroe Islands Like Visitors--but Only So Many

May 20, 1990|TIM PEARCE | REUTERS

TORSHAVN, Denmark — Far from the sun-drenched haunts of package tours, the 18 rugged Faeroe Islands in the North Atlantic cater to the more independent visitor, and that's how the residents of the Faeroe Islands want to keep it.

There are 47,000 Faeroese, and a busy year brings almost as many tourists. Most of them come during the short summer season, June through August, when the days are long and millions of migratory birds screech and swoop around their nests on the towering cliffs.

"The Faeroese don't want a dramatic explosion in tourism," said Tourist Board director Jakup Veyhe. "They've traveled a lot and they're scared by the mass tourism they've seen in areas such as the Mediterranean."

Descended from Vikings who drove out or killed the Irish monks they found here in the 8th Century, the Faeroese have traded their ancestors' reputation for rape and pillage for the security of the Scandinavian welfare state.

But excessive investment in fishing boats, social services and costly roads and tunnels have plunged the islanders, who enjoy home rule under the Danish crown, into economic crisis.

Almost all the Faeroes' export earnings come from fish, and tourism is one of the few alternative sources of foreign currency.

Prime Minister Jogvan Sundstein thinks tourism can help solve the islands' problems. "But facilities are limited," he said. "We don't want to go too fast, and 50,000 tourists in our short season is perhaps enough."

Torshavn has two international hotels with about 160 rooms. Small hotels, youth hostels and camp sites are scattered around the volcanic islands. Some rooms are also available in private homes.

"We only recommend camping for experienced visitors," Veyhe says, noting that Atlantic gales and driving rain can attack with little warning on the stark islands midway between Iceland and Norway.

One positive feature of the Faeroes is the Philatelic Bureau, which since 1976 has issued 200 stamps featuring local themes, the high quality of which has made them a hit with collectors round the world.

"We have 70,000 subscribers who regularly buy our issues," said Edvard Jonsson, the bureau's production and development head. "Stamp sales are the Faeroes' second-biggest export earner," with a net profit of almost $2 million last year.

Jonsson says the stamps, focusing on all aspects of local life and history, bring thousands of letters a year from collectors wanting to know more about the islands they describe.

Dramatic landscapes, Viking handicrafts, the traditional chain dance and the turf-roofed prime minister's office have all traveled the world on Faeroe stamps.

A vacation in the Faeroes is not a casual venture. A 96-year-old law bans the sale or consumption of alcohol in shops, restaurants or hotels, except in private rooms.

Visitors must rely on their duty-free allowance, befriend a Faeroese or order their drink well in advance from the local brewery. Faeroese have a quarterly import allowance, and many visitors join one of the clubs that import and store their rations.

Delicacies include whale and puffin, although supplies of both vary considerably and are seldom found on restaurant menus.

The whale hunt, an old tradition, is limited to the pilot whale, a small but tasty species so plentiful that the International Whaling Commission says it needs no protection.

Schools of whales sighted near land are driven ashore and slaughtered with special knives and the meat divided among the hunters.

"I was called in to divide up the meat and blubber after a killing at the weekend," one businessman said at a recent lunch.

"Each of those who took part received about 145 pounds. I like to freeze some of my share and hang up some to dry in strips. It's very good sliced thinly, like salami, with vegetables."

Ferries, fine roads and even helicopters make it easy to move around the islands, where not long ago fishing villages were accessible only by sea, and then only in good weather.

"More than half our tourists are Danes, not surprising because there are daily flights from Copenhagen and regular ferry services," said Veyhe.

Other Scandinavians are the next most numerous visitors, followed by Germans, their journey simplified by a ferry service from Jutland.

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