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21/06/2018

The tourism poser in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands

North Coast

Increased tourism is providing a welcome boost to local economies in Scotland's Highlands and Islands – but it's putting infrastructure under pressure. How do you solve this without spoling the character that people love, asks Ann MacSween.

In The Living Mountain, written in the 1940s, Nan Shepherd wrote this about the need to balance the promotion of attractions with the physical impact of visitors:

“A restaurant hums on the heights and between it and the summit Carn Gorm grows scruffy, the very heather tatty from the scrape of boots (too many boots, too much commotion, but then how much uplift for how many hearts).”

The tension, picked up here, is between keeping sites pristine – perhaps by restricting visitors and the desire to encourage visitors to share and enjoy our heritage and through that to improve the economy of rural communities.

This is a dilemma that has continued. Scotland’s visitor numbers have risen sharply in recent years. In the first nine months of 2017, overseas visitors increased by 15 per cent and domestic visitors by 8.5 per cent.

Part of this is attributed to the promotion of initiatives such as the North Coast 500 driving route, which attracted 29,000 additional tourists to the Highlands in the year following its 2015 launch.

The nature of visits is changing too; many tourists heading to an area to see the same few must-see sites, often promoted by social media. The use of a place as a film, TV or advertising location is an additional interest. Glencoe, for example, which featured in the Outlander drama, recorded a 53 per cent increase in visitor centre numbers since the series began.

“While an increase in tourist numbers is much welcomed for the boost to local economies, there are challenges in incorporating the influx of visitors to some areas.”

Suggestions to deal with congestion on the Isle of Skye have included the use of park-and-ride services to cut the number of cars on single track roads, encouraging off-season visits, and applying tourist taxes.

We must also address how to conserve the appeal of the places that attract visitors to Scotland in the first place. Often part of the draw is lack of development, the tranquillity and a sense of remoteness. Maintaining the special qualities of sites needs to be balanced with the economic driver of tourism as one of Scotland’s main industries, and also with the needs of visitors.

There are some quick-fix infrastructure solutions that can address parking congestion, or a lack of toilet facilities.

Less easy is identifying how best to accommodate significant increases in visitors while maintaining the essence of what they have come to experience. Cross-sectoral working around sustainable tourism issues is essential in reaching good outcomes for both visitors and residents.

Dr Ann MacSween MRTPI is head of casework in the heritage directorate for Historic Environment Scotland

Photo | Shutterstock

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