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I'm a freelance journalist, travel writer and guidebook author based between the UK (cold) and Sweden (colder).

I've worked for The Independent, The Washington Post, The Observer, BBC Radio 4, Which? and Rough Guides, among many others, and grabbed front-page headlines with my investigative research. I also built this website. You won't find any adverts, sponsored blog posts or phoney travel recommendations here; just some of my work, plus stories from out on the road.

November 14, 2013

The island exodus

Filed under: Sweden — stevenjvickers @ 11:30 am

Populations are dropping on some Swedish islands

Rising from the sea like barnacle-covered whales, the humpbacked islands off Sweden’s west coast are – in erosional terms – reasonably well protected. The tides are hardly noticeable.

But the ebb and flow of people is easy enough to see.

Take a ferry from Gothenburg during the summer, and you’ll struggle to find a seat among the tourists and young families, who pile in with bikes and pushchairs. Make the same journey at other times of the year, and the boats are strangely quiet.

Vrångö, near Gothenburg

Just five or six passengers leave the ferry with me at Vrångö, a green-grey crag in the archipelago that stretches north and south of the city. A salty autumn breeze whispers through the yellow grass, and a lone kayaker sploshes along the shore, pushing blob-like jellyfish behind her with every stroke.

“In the summertime we have a thousand people living here, ” says Johan, the blue-eyed man running Vrångö’s only shop. “In the winter it’s much less. I might only earn a tenth of what I earn in the summer.”

He offers me a ride from the harbour to his shop. Private cars cannot be used in this part of the archipelago and it’s flakmopeder – mopeds with large flatbeds attached to the front, characteristically Swedish in their simplicity – that keep the islands moving.

Flakmopeder in Sweden

Johan fires up the engine: one hand twisting gently on the throttle, two infant daughters clinging onto his legs and a large silver cross hanging around his neck. Christianity, now shunned by so many Swedes on the mainland, still has an obvious presence on Vrångö. My faith – and my backside – is placed in the tray at the front of the moped.

From here, Vrångö looks a lot like other islands on Sweden’s west coast. Red cottages and rusting boats with names like African Queen wait to be repainted. Forests bursting with berries stretch across the interior. And lobster traps bleached by brine and sunlight fringe the peaceful coves.

But despite this beauty, Vrångö is struggling to maintain a healthy number of year-round residents. The island’s population, which peaked in 2003, has since fallen by almost 30. At the last count, there were only 365 people living permanently on the island – one full-time resident for each day of the year.

Church on Vrångö, near Gothenburg

Vrångö’s fishing fleet has dwindled with the arrival of modern boats, and wealthy families from the city now own many of the houses that fishermen once lived in. They arrive to sail and sip snaps for a few weeks every summer, and then disappear for the rest of the year.

“The municipality stopped encouraging people to live here,” Johan tells me, visibly frustrated. “They say that if you centralise everything – put people in a mass – then it’s cheaper to control.”

Vrångö’s school has been shut for more than a year now and each morning, local kids have to take a ferry ride for classes on a neighbouring island. The authorities say they need more children to make a school on Vrångö work.

Harbour on a Swedish island

Residents like Johan and his family, keen to see the day when the school reopens, have developed a sharpened interest in local births. There are islanders who can tell you not just how many children have been born this year, but also what their names are.

“Was it five or six last year?” they ask each other with puzzled frowns. “Sara, Hanna, Olle…” they say, counting the names aloud.

This might sound desperate, but compared with many islands in Sweden, Vrångö and its neighbours near Gothenburg are doing well. In less than a decade, dozens of previously inhabited islands – most of them far from the big cities – have been abandoned altogether. Around 70 Swedish islands now have just one inhabitant.

Many Swedish islands have a small population

For many islanders, pushed out of the housing market and concerned by the decline in services like schools, moving away is the obvious choice. And for teenagers, who dream of nightclubs and high-street shops, the lure of the city is strong.

But there is hope for communities like Vrångö. In August, officials in Gothenburg announced plans to turn the archipelago into a year-round tourist destination. “It’s our Eiffel Tower, our Great Wall,” said one spokesman.

And on Vrångö, facilities are improving. Fast ferries have cut journey times from the city. A new café has been built. And the island’s first hostel will soon be open for business.

Rusting boat on Swedish island

Some of the island’s people have also started working with Sweden’s economic growth agency in the hope of creating more jobs, more opportunities and a larger number of year-round residents.

But what if the disappearing tide cannot be stopped, and the population keeps dropping? Would Johan and his family ever move back to the mainland?

“No way,” he says when we reach the shop, seemingly shocked by the thought.

“Well,” he adds quickly. “Not unless God tells me to.”

This piece was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4′s From Our Own Correspondent.

All content © 2013–2015 Steve Vickers