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Control your tour guide from your sofa

April 15, 2020

The coronavirus has brought tourism to a halt around the world. But the Faroe Islands want people to keep visiting. The country is attaching cameras to tour guides and letting the internet control where they go.

Visit Faroe Islands Tourismus Organisation
Image: Visit Faroe Islands

"This is Crown Princess Mary's bench," says my guide Sara Jacobsen. "She was the first one to ever sit on it." The view is incredible. I can see various cliffs and mountains of the Faroe Islands, and the Atlantic Ocean stretching out beyond. I look down at my sofa in Berlin and then around the living room, where I've spent much of the lockdown. Crown Princess Mary has me beat.

I'm all for Sara sitting on the bench and allowing me to take in the view a little longer. But I'm not controlling her. Someone else is. They press a button to order her to go the right, and she dutifully begins to make her way along the path towards the village of Gjogv (Faroese for "gorge").

Read more: Can tourists coexist with nature on Lebanon's Rabbit Island?

These buttons have turned Sara into something of a real-life gaming character, who internet users can use to explore the Faroe Islands in real time. The islands' tourism board is equipping someone with a live-video camera and an iPhone every day, and for one hour they will follow instructions and livestream wherever they walk. They've called it "Remote Tourism."

Experiencing nature on the Faroe Islands

On my command

The controller appears at the bottom of the screen and is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever seen a games console. Each viewer gets one minute. Click on the forwards, left, right, or back buttons, and that is the way the guide will go. I'm clearly watching with some slightly more demanding viewers, however, who are determined to make poor Sara run and jump wherever we send her.

When we allow her to stop and catch her breath, she gives us information about what we're looking at. We learn that Gjogv is a tiny fishing village of about 50 people, perched in the far north of the islands, where some houses have traditional grass roofs. We learn the Faroe Islands are home to around 52,000 people and 80,000 sheep.

"Someone once told me how they mow the roofs," Sara adds. "You can just put a sheep up there and they'll do the mowing for you."

Houses with grass roofs in Saksun village on the Faroe Islands
Grass roofs have become a symbol of the Faroe IslandsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Zoonar

The quality of the livesteam is exceptional — the Faroe Islands' internet connection bandwidth is second only to South Korea — and the landscape is stunning. It's fair to say I'm utterly charmed.

Read more: Coronavirus underscores urgency to bridge digital divide

Preparing for lifting restrictions

It means the tourism board's idea has worked on me at least. Travel restrictions have caused the tourism industries to shut down all over the world. The problem has hit the Faroe Islands as much as anywhere else. Last year around 130,000 people visited, generating approximately €107 million ($116 million) in turnover for the economy. This year it won't get that money.

The idea behind "Remote Tourism" is at least to push the Faroe Islands to the top of people's bucket lists when they can travel again. Gudrid Hojgaard, director of Visit Faroe Islands, said in a statement:  "When the travel bans began to escalate, we sat and 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.

A screenshot shows how to direct the guides on a remote tour
Tour participants get to direct their guides a minute at a timeImage: Visit Faroe Islands

"The result is this new platform that enables those in isolation to take a walk across our wild landscapes and to explore beyond their own four walls.

"We believe that our remote islands are the perfect place to inspire people in lockdown — and, naturally, we hope to welcome them in person once everyone is free to travel again."

'A strange experience, but so much fun'

If there's one downside to the tour, it's other people. Sara often gives helpful hints as to what we could do. "If you ask me to turn right here, we'll be heading down toward the old part of the village," she says at one point. Great idea, I think. But I don't have the controls. Someone else does. They turn our guide left and she begins to descend into the gorge for a second time.

That's part of the excitement for her though. "Being remote-controlled by a person thousands of kilometers away was a very strange experience, but it was so much fun and I really look forward to doing the rest of the tours," she told me after the stream ended.

Sarah Jacobsen holds an iPhone up to capture the view at a Faroe Islands beach
Sarah Jacobsen is one of the guides who users can direct as she explores the Faroe Islands for themImage: Kirstin Vang/Visit Faroe Islands

"It's an honor to be able to show off our country in a fun, creative and interactive way to thousands of people around the world who can visit us virtually."

The virtual tours will continue at least twice a day (17 UTC and 20 UTC), around different parts of the island, for at least 10 days. Once travel restrictions are lifted, I wonder how many of those virtual travellers will make the actual journey to Mary's bench.

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