How the Faroe Islands Turned a Voluntourism Project Into a Dream Vacation

Each spring, the Faroe Islands closes major sites, giving access only to select volunteers doing maintenance projects. With thousands applying to participate, the program has become harder to get into than Harvard.

Three men in yellow beanies with one holding a wooden sign that says "Closed for Maintenance" in front of a green hill with blue skies

The Closed for Maintenance, Open for Voluntourism program draws people from around the world who want to take part in making travel more sustainable in the Nordic archipelago.

Photo by Emily Madinsky

The green hills of Suðuroy roll in a dramatic slant into the endless North Atlantic far below. On this early May afternoon in the Faroe Islands, the sun shines as bright as the matching yellow beanies my new Swedish friend Patricia and I wear as we slather crimson red paint on the sign to Ryskivatn, a nearby lake. As we chat and gussy up the wind-worn sign to make it easier to spot when the weather inevitably turns foggy, three nosey locals bound over to stare at our progress through thick curly black hair. They’re some of the 70,000 sheep that call the Faroe Islands home.

The Faroe Islands famously has more sheep than people. But in 2023, approximately 130,000 foreign tourists visited the remote Nordic archipelago of 18 volcanic islands located halfway between Iceland and Scotland, outnumbering the roughly 54,000 full-time Faroese. So it’s no surprise that the self-governing region of the Kingdom of Denmark is more concerned about the growing population of tourists than sheep.

Like Venice and Amsterdam before it, the Faroe Islands will begin charging tourist taxes in October 2025 that will be used to finance a Nature Preservation Fund for the maintenance of hiking paths as well as other local tourism initiatives and nature protection schemes.

But unlike other destinations, the Faroese government has taken another, more unorthodox approach to preventing overtourism by immersing visitors in the maintenance of the islands’ fragile natural environment and creation of a more sustainable infrastructure. Each spring, the Closed for Maintenance, Open for Voluntourism program shuts down some of the country’s most popular sites for a few days. In exchange for free room and board, several dozen international volunteers are invited to participate in various infrastructure projects across the islands, including constructing pathways to preserve the islands’ natural beauty as well as installing wayfinding signs on trails and roads to keep both visitors and locals safe.

Since the pilot Closed for Maintenance, Open for Voluntourism program launched in 2019, 409 volunteers from 40 countries have completed roughly 50 projects across 10 islands. With more than 23,800 applicants over the past five years, the program has an acceptance rate of approximately 1.7 percent—making this volunteer project harder to get into than Harvard.

This past May, I got to be one of those lucky few. During the four days I spent with my fellow volunteers on the island of Suðuroy, I learned that this isn’t merely a PR gimmick but also a valuable way to teach travelers about our effect on such a remote and beautiful place. Plus, I came away with a whole new group of like-minded friends from around the world.

Here’s what it’s like to take part in the Closed for Maintenance, Open for Voluntourism project.

Group of volunteers building a footbridge on a hiking trail near Faroese shoreline, with cliffs and the Atlantic Ocean in background

Building a footbridge over a badly worn section of a hiking path in the town of Vágur, Suðuroy

Photo by Emily Madinsky

The selection process

This past January, 5,945 aspiring volunteers from 96 countries applied for the 80 available spots in the 2024 project on the Visit Faroe Islands website. About 70 percent of the volunteers were chosen randomly, while the other spots were hand-selected for relevant experience that matched up with specific projects. (In general, volunteers must be at least 18 years old and need no special skills other than being able to walk on uneven terrain and use tools like hammers, wheelbarrows, and shovels during the projects.)

Once the lucky 80 were selected and notified, we all had 48 hours to book a flight to the Faroe Islands. (While room and board is covered for the four-night trip, volunteers must pay for their own flights to the Faroe Islands. Currently the Faroes’ own Atlantic Airways flies primarily via Copenhagen, with other more seasonal European routes and a new seasonal New York flight. SAS offers flights from Copenhagen, and Icelandair flies from Reykjavík.)

In addition to the international volunteers, 30 local volunteers also joined the eight different group projects throughout the islands with about a 50/50 foreigners to locals ratio on most maintenance crews. In my group, I was joined by three other women traveling solo from Canada, Sweden, and Denmark, plus a couple from Poland. A majority of applicants come from Europe, but other groups had volunteers from as far away as South Africa and Bolivia.

Though there’s no official word on how to get selected, it seems like persistence or a previous visit to the Faroe Islands helps. A few in my group applied before and finally got in on their third try, while others got in on their first try after waxing poetic about how they fell in love with the country on a previous trip in the short essay section of the application.

In addition to us six foreigners, five Faroese men from the capital of Tórshavn who do this annually as a group of friends rounded out our group, which was led by Majken Sandá, from the local Suðuroy tourism board. We were also joined by two local landscapers who brought all the tools and guided us in our hiking trail maintenance project on Suðuroy.

Man in yellow beanie walks up staircase while carrying wooden posts between a green house and a red house

Part of the project involved clearing this trailhead of moss to make it safer to walk on.

Photo by Lyndsey Matthews

The projects

This year’s Closed for Maintenance program started on Wednesday, May 1. After a short orientation lunch in the town of Bøur near the country’s sole airport, volunteers were split up into eight groups defined by the color of the wool beanies we were given upon arrival. While the team with the petrol blue caps were off to the village of Tjørnuvík to make a path to its famous black sand beach more accessible, and the army green beanie team began work on a sheep fence just outside the capital to protect a nearby wetland, the other members of the yellow beanie crew and I boarded a two-hour ferry to Suðuroy for a hiking trail maintenance project. As the southernmost island in the Faroes, Suðuroy isn’t as visited as places closer to the capital, but the local tourism board wants to make sure their infrastructure is ready as visitor numbers grow.

Once we settled into the town of Vágur, located in a bay on the eastern side of the island, we got to work on Thursday, May 2, repairing and adding clear signage to the hiking trail that leads up to the top of Gjógvaráfjall, an 1,100-foot mountain overlooking the town. Since the existing path would have easily confused tourists (and even locals) as private farmland due to a lack of signage, most of the work involved adding blue trail markers and replacing rotten posts along the trail.

Back at the trailhead in town, my new Canadian friend Emily and I were in charge of cleaning the staircase at the start of the hike. While we scraped and scrubbed and power washed moss and grass off the concrete steps, several neighbors from nearby houses came out to chat with us while one of their puppies tried her best to wrestle our focus from the volunteer project to play ball with her. (She won, at least for a few minutes.)

Woman sits on outdoor staircase holding a shovel and petting a black and white puppy while an elderly woman looks on from behind

Making friends with the neighbors

Photo by Emily Madinsky

The second full work day on Friday, May 3, involved adding more blue trailer markers to the top of the trail and a seating area to enjoy the view. Though it’s windy up there, the view is worth the hike to see the entire town, the fjord that carves out the bay, and the ocean below. And now that the path is marked clearly, it should only take about an hour to make it from town to the mountaintop along the 1.5-mile trail if you move at a steady Faroese clip.

Over the course of the two full-work days, in addition to clearing and marking the hiking trail up Gjógvaráfjall, our team also repainted those road signs to Ryskivatn lake and other sites beyond Vágur, cleared the town’s beach of debris that had washed up, and managed to build a footbridge over a badly worn section of a path on the other side of the mountain.

Room and board

In exchange for our work on various maintenance projects, we volunteers received free local accommodation and food from when the project began on Wednesday afternoon through breakfast on Sunday—though aspiring volunteers shouldn’t expect to stay at any of the nicer hotels or eat at buzzy restaurants like Ræst in the capital. For example, my group stayed at a local scout’s hut in Vágur where accommodations were basic—think twin-size beds and two shared bathrooms among the dozen of us—but clean and charming. The scout’s hand-painted banners with puffins and gulls decorated the bedrooms and common hall downstairs. It added a certain Wes Anderson–style charm to an experience that felt like an adult sleepaway camp.

 A twin bed in a simple room with wooden walls (L); two leather banners on wall, one painted with a reindeer, the other with a puffin (R)

Accidentally Wes Anderson accommodations in Vágur

Photos by Lyndsey Matthews

Meals included simple dishes like fish soup and hearty burgers and meat and potatoes at restaurants in town. On our final night in Vágur, Nina, the local landscaper who helped lead our project, cooked a feast for us at the local dance hall with prime rib, shrimp mousse, and halibut in a mango curry sauce. (She called the meal “Faroese with a major ass kick in the French direction.”) Afterwards, a local dance troupe taught us how to do the Faroese chain dance—a simple two steps left and one step right while all holding hands as a leader sings traditional verses. We swapped stories, aquavit shots, and bits of language lessons late into the night. (I now know how to say “fart” in Faroese, Swedish, Polish, and Danish. Other groups discussed loftier subjects like EU economic policies at dinner, I heard.)

The final night

With our volunteer work wrapped up on Friday, Saturday we packed up our bags and left the scout’s hut behind to do a bit of sightseeing around the rest of Suðuroy before catching a helicopter back to Tórshavn. The 20-minute ride courtesy of Atlantic Airways offered priceless views of the islands and also was significantly faster than the two-hour ferry to the island. After we arrived in style back in the capital, we all checked into the Hilton Garden Inn (compliments of the program) before heading to Oy Brewery down the street for the farewell dinner. There we met up with the seven other volunteer groups and listened to each team give a short presentation—complete with PowerPoints—about their project. After the presentations, a family-style barbecue dinner was served while local bands, including Páll Finnur Páll, performed and a DJ took over and played until 1 a.m. The party didn’t stop there though. When I woke up to catch my flight the next morning, I heard of others staying out at bars in town until 5 a.m.

Five people in jackets and yellow beanies walking down a street in the Faroe Islands, with modern house in background

The author (center) with a few of her new friends.

Photo by Emily Madinsky

Takeaways

As I watched the dramatic cliffs of the Faroe Island recede as my flight took off on Sunday, my only regrets were that the program wasn’t longer—and that most of us will never beat the odds to participate again. With only two days of volunteer work and four full days together as a group, it felt like we were just coming together as a team and getting to know each other when the trip ended. Overall, though, it was a valuable experience that I cannot recommend highly enough to travelers whose ideal vacation is getting their hands dirty alongside a group of like-minded people. It’s one thing to be aware of how overtourism affects a growing tourism destination. It’s another thing to immerse yourself in the prevention of it.

Even if you don’t make it into the highly selective program, you should still visit this rugged North Atlantic archipelago—and enjoy some of the hard work we put in on hiking trails in other destinations like Nólsoy, Sandoy, and more. Or take in the spectacular scenery at maintenance projects completed in previous years in places like Slættaratindur, the highest mountain in the Faroe Islands, the “hanging lake” at Trælanípa, and the island of Mykines, where it’s possible to visit puffin colonies.

To find out when registration opens for the 2025 “Closed for Maintenance, Open for Voluntourism” program, sign up for the Visit Faroe Islands newsletter.

Lyndsey Matthews is the former senior commerce editor at Afar, covering travel gear, packing advice, and points and loyalty.
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