Sunday, November 16, 2008

Celebrity visits generate publicity

With former US president Bill Clinton and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore in the country’s guest book, international media coverage could be causing the Faroes to emerge from obscurity—clearing the way for effective nation branding. Búi Tyril talks to Elin Heinesen, Managing Director of SamVit, Faroe Islands Enterprise, and others.

By Búi Tyril, Faroe Business Report 2008

When a panel of experts with National Geographic Traveler ranked the Faroe Islands as the world’s most appealing island destination, it was a convenient piece of news for the Faroe Islands Enterprise (SamVit), the merged Faroe Islands Trade Council and Faroe Islands Tourist Board.

The special appeared a few months after last summer’s visit of former US President Bill Clinton, and was in all likelihood a direct result of increased awareness of the country. President Clinton arrived with former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix to deliver the keynote speeches at a Tórshavn gathering of businesspeople and officials.

“This is the biggest news to hit the Faroe Islands since Christianity arrived about a thousand years ago,” Canada’s Toronto Star commented when the new broke that Mr Clinton had accepted the invitation from the House of Industry.

One year on, a search engine query on the phrase [Bill Clinton Faroe Islands] returned 21,100 results.

“That’s the point,” said SamVit managing director Elin Heinesen. “The Clinton-Blix event was a huge success and it’s still having a tremendous impact. The effects of such stories need time to filter through but… Well, as you see, this one received extensive media coverage.”

Next move: Get Nobel Peace Prize winner, former Vice President Al Gore featured at a conference on the subject of climate change, marine environment and energy. As this publication went to press, the TransAtlantic Climate Conference was to be held in Tórshavn on 7th and 8th April, featuring Mr Gore as keynote speaker, plus a host of experts from several countries.

“A new initiative focusing on climate changes in the Atlantic Ocean and climate challenges related to the ocean,” the TACC 08 was aimed “particularly at researchers, business people, civil society representatives and politicians in the North Atlantic region and the Nordic countries,” said the organizers—Bitland, House of Industry, SamVit, and NORA.

The idea as envisaged by SamVit: International media could be about to discover the Faroes and should be encouraged to follow through on stories related to the place—which many of them are happy to do as they’ll have a natural interest in catering to their audience’s growing taste for things out of the ordinary.

“What we offer is in demand out there,” Ms Heinesen said. “According to the latest reports on population trends, people living in big cities, for the first time in recorded history, now outnumber people living in rural areas. We’re noting an increased interest from foreign journalists, scientists, businesspeople, and tourists. I think what some of them see in our country is something missing elsewhere, maybe something that used to be there for them but disappeared somewhere along the way. So what the Faroes has is a mix that can bring back that feeling of serenity and yet fascinate at the same time.”

Clearly, whereas mass tourism is not what we’re looking at, business travel and ecotourism are.

Ranking the Faroe Islands on the top of its 111-long list of island destinations—ahead of the Azores and Lofoten with Shetland and Iceland trailing—Traveler quoted its experts in sustainable tourism and destination stewardship on the Faroes: “Lovely unspoiled islands—a delight to the traveler.”

The magazine added: “Remote and cool, and thus safe from overcrowding, the autonomous archipelago northwest of the Shetlands earns high marks from panelists for preservation of nature, historic architecture, and local pride.” Another quote from the panelists: “Spectacular waterfalls and harbors.”

The feature entitled “111 islands” warned against “tourism overkill” and other perils. “The world’s most appealing destinations—islands—are the ones most prone to tourism overkill,” it said. “Islands symbolize vacation. Escape! Their very insularity makes them more attractive than a comparable piece of real estate on the mainland. They are worlds unto themselves—their own traditions, ecosystems, cultures, landscapes. That’s what attracts us. But as microworlds, islands are also more vulnerable to population pressure, climate change, storm damage, invasive species, and now, tourism overkill.

Traveler and its National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations conducted the fourth annual Destination Scorecard survey, aided by George Washington University, “to see how the integrity of islands around the world is holding up. A panel of 522 experts in sustainable tourism and destination stewardship donated time to review conditions in these 111 selected islands and archipelagos.”

Said Ms Heinesen: “The coverage we’ve received will doubtlessly attract more tourists. But beyond that, it helps us in terms of nation branding.”

It’s all in the mix

Interview with Ms. Elin Brimheim Heinesen, Managing Director of SamVit - Faroe Islands Enterprise

By Búi Tyril, Faroe Business Report 2008

Their outlook is increasingly global yet people in the Faroes are proud of their national identity—after all, the unique Faroese culture is alive and kicking, their islands are truly beautiful, and their fishing is the envy of the world.

Rumor has it that the man credited for introducing the term ‘nation branding’ not long ago called the Faroe Islands “the Shangri La of the 21st century.” Assuming there is verifiable substance behind the alleged statement, a first question to follow would be: In using such words about this very small country, what does an international authority on branding of places mean to imply?

According to the Economist, “Simon Anholt is one of the world’s leading advisers to governments who wish to build global brands.” Now that does lend a touch of class to whatever he has to say about the competitiveness of any place. The man behind “the first analytical ranking of the world’s nation brands”—the Anholt Nation Brands Index—has in fact developed a method of surveying tens of thousands of consumers in dozens of countries on their “perceptions of the cultural, political, commercial and human assets, investment potential and tourist appeal of each nation.”

True, as a brand, the Faroes may still have a long way to go. It takes financial muscle to run sizeable marketing campaigns. But something is on the move, says Elin Heinesen, managing director of SamVit, also known as the Faroe Islands Enterprise.

“Globalization appears to be an unstoppable megatrend that brings a lot of great things,” Ms Heinesen says. “Its influence penetrates everyday life in the Faroes as well as everywhere else; but it nonetheless poses many challenges for communities around the world. One of the major problems with modern life as experienced in big cities is the eradication of cultural differences—the lack of diversity undermines people’s sense of uniqueness and distinction. In this context, the Faroes is becoming attractive because of our special combination, somehow representing the opposite of what many city dwellers are growing weary of, and yet exciting at the same time.”

Once you’re there, the funny thing about this closely knit, self governing community in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is first and foremost its constantly manifested, stunning contrasts that keep coming at you.

Starting with road infrastructure, the 48,000 strong island nation enjoys building roads and submarine tunnels for billions of Danish krones (hundreds of millions of euros). What kind of proportions would that translate into in your home country? You do the math.

You may try to touch upon any controversial subject in the Faroes; succeed (difficult for anyone not local) and you’ll have people going on forever over peanuts. But ask anyone for a helping hand—no, don’t even ask—and you’ll be treated to genuine generosity of the kind that will make you feel like home.

Again, expect surprise.

Now, try to push a Faroese for a decision on some relatively important issue, something that bureaucrats elsewhere would spend months on, and you’ll be amazed at the most prompt expediency you’ve ever seen. Take another angle and ask any Faroese manager what his or her time schedule will look like over the next few weeks, and the most likely answer: “Well, it depends…”

Hence the old nickname, the Land of Maybe. But again, note the contradicting combination of spontaneous swiftness and ready submission to the force majeure that be.

“The Maybe factor has been on the retreat for half a century but it’s undeniably still there,” Ms Heinesen says. “The weather still decides a lot, and the ocean is still by far our most important source of income.”

Indeed, fishing and the ocean is the very life of the Faroe Islands, yet the majority of the population is employed in private and public services. Then there’s the arts and crafts, Ms Heinesen points out.

“Our traditions in arts and crafts are held in high esteem and I believe their continuance is extremely important,” she says.

“There are strong currents driving opportunities in our direction—foreigners see something new, different and unspoiled in our culture. At the same time, we have up and coming Faroese music artists gaining audiences around the world, and the same goes for several clothing designers.”

So while Internet technology and universal awareness of global issues are placing these islands firmly on the world map, the Faroese are themselves keen on keeping their cultural balance intact—as well as the ecological one—and learning to capitalize on it. Otherwise, a community entirely dependent on the sustainable harvesting of its marine resources would neither survive nor prosper.