Can place branding and destination marketing be used as tools for responsible tourism development? Guðrið Højgaard, CEO of Visit Faroe Islands, in this interview shows us how the North Atlantic archipelago (part of the Kingdom of Denmark) has been able to promote responsible tourism and sustainable destination development through smart destination marketing and innovative campaigns.
Guðrið, prior to joining Visit Faroe Islands as CEO you were the Marketing Director of Visit Stockholm, having previously also worked at Visit Denmark. What inspired you move to the Faroe Islands and to lead the tourism team there?
Actually I was born and raised in the Faroe Islands, even though I haven’t lived here since I was a teenager. I lived in four different countries before moving back home, due to family reasons.
I sometimes wonder whether it was by accident or if it was the destiny that made me be in the Faroe Islands, right when the tourist board was relaunched, and when they were looking for a new director. I applied for the job and got it.
My experience from my time at Visit Stockholm and Visit Denmark has of course been of utmost importance for me in this job.
How have your views on the Faroe Islands changed over time?
Well, I think that the Faroe Islands have changed a lot in the last few years. We have gone from population deficit to population surplus. The young people who didn’t have any plans to return are now returning. We have no unemployment and there is a general optimism in the society. We hear all the time that our work at Visit Faroe Islands is one of the reasons for this positive change.
Our tourism has increased around 10% annually in recent years and thanks to that we now have a wider variety of high-class restaurants and events, which also benefit the locals.
Over the last years Faroe Islands have repeatedly surprised and inspired with innovative, quirky communication campaigns – such as “SheepView” or “Closed for Maintenance”. In addition to their well-documented success externally, what impact have those initiatives had on the community?
I have always felt a very strong support from the government since I started here. We managed to get a double budget only a few months after I started, which has continued. Our initiatives have created real results with an increase in tourism, which has created more jobs and income in our industry.
We do have some people who are skeptical to tourism, probably mainly because of overtourism horror stories from other places, but overall the general public are positive and we often hear from people that they are proud of what we have been doing: that we have put the Faroe Islands more clearly on the world map and have managed to get the message out that the Faroe Islands are a cool place to visit and to live in.
Sustainability is an important success indicator now for any destination. How do you master this balancing act between wanting more attention and visitors, and at the same time having to protect the natural environment and ensuring the well-being of local communities?
We launched our new strategy “Join the Preservolution” earlier this year, where our main objective is to develop to preserve. The locals are central and our aim is to make our tourism industry partners sign a manifesto together with us in regard of developing the destination sustainably.
If you had to summarize “Brand Faroe Islands” in the length of a tweet – what would you say?
Our geographical position is our strongest selling point! Take stake from your DNA in everything you do – because what you are is where you are!
With an estimated 90 percent of place branding initiatives failing, what does it take to succeed – which are the keys to success?
We are a very small organization with small resources, so we have had to be creative out of necessity.
Today, destination marketing and -branding are not a question of having big budgets, because the digital era has democratized the marketing field and created a possibility for everyone to reach out. Success is now a question of creativity and content management.
It is also very important that you as a leader put a lot of energy into creating a winning team – most of my colleagues haven’t worked in this field before, but people with the right prerequisites, combined with integrity and passion, can create miracles.
How does tourism empower women in the Faroe Islands?
Tourism in the Faroe Islands is to a large degree run by women today, which I of course am proud of, especially as our other industries are very “masculine” – the fishing industry and salmon farming are our main industries.
As demand for a more responsible tourism is growing, do you think the success of DMOs could be measured linked to the UN sustainable development goals?
I think that the UN sustainable development goals should be the backbone of all destination development and tourism management strategies.
This is something that, with time, should be a no-brainer – it should be implicit rather than explicit.
I think that so far there has been more TELLING than DOING in tourism, regarding sustainability. But I am confident that this will change at a higher speed in the near future.
Which trends do you observe right now, likely to impact the work and success of destination marketers in the years ahead?
In general, the globalization has made destinations more and more alike, where you can buy the same goods in the same concept stores throughout the world. This makes it more difficult to keep your destination authentic and to make it stand out from the crowd. That’s a marketing challenge.
On the management side, it is the international discussion about overtourism, and locals’ increased negativity towards tourists, that is an issue for many destinations.
One of the reasons for the “Closed for Maintenance” project here in the Faroe Islands was to contribute to this discussion about overtourism and to show the world that the tourists should be seen as a part of the solution, rather than the problem.
And of course, also to a large degree the sustainability and climate change discussion. I am sure that we will see a big change in the coming years regarding travel patterns and demands to suppliers and destinations, both from guests and locals.
Thank you, Guðrið.
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