Vrango, an island with a rescue plan

  • 16 November 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Vrango in Sweden

The waters off the coast of Sweden contain more than 200,000 islands - popular with tourists during the summer, but largely deserted come winter. Residents and authorities are working to breathe life back into the islands, year-round.

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 will 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.

Just five or six passengers leave the ferry with me at Vrango, 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 1,000 people living here," says Johan, the blue-eyed man running Vrango's only shop.

"In the winter it is much less. I might only earn one-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 is flakmopeder - mopeds with large flatbeds attached to the front, characteristically Swedish in their simplicity - that keep the islands moving.

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 Vrango. My faith - and my backside - is placed in the tray at the front of the moped.

From here, Vrango 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, Vrango 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.

Vrango'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 (the Swedish name for schnapps) 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 this mass - then it is cheaper to control."

Vrango'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 that they need more children to make a school on Vrango work.

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, Olleā€¦" they say, counting the names aloud. This might sound desperate, but compared with many islands in Sweden, Vrango 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.

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 Vrango. In August, officials in Gothenburg announced plans to turn the archipelago into a year-round tourist destination.

"It is our Eiffel Tower, our Great Wall," said one spokesman.

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

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."

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