The Hurts in the Highlands

I’ve gone down this road at least twice before – with Should we all just bide at home? in March 2019, plus Back in the Highlands in August 2020 – but make no apologies for being on it again. Even before travel restrictions were lifted within Scotland, some concerns were being expressed by folk living in rural areas about the coming influx of tourists. Most of these worries were based on the experiences of summer 2020 and fears that this year would bring more of the same, especially on the rapidly-becoming-notorious North Coast 500 route.

Last summer, Durness Community Council wrote to the Scottish Government, highlighting the problems they were experiencing: “In the past few weeks we have been swamped by so-called ‘wild campers’. The result has been damage to our area through rubbish, fires, human waste being left in ever-increasing amounts throughout our area, in beauty spots and even in the centre of the village”. They added: “We love where we live and love welcoming visitors to our small slice of paradise. Give us the protections, tools and help to welcome them safely and protect us from those that would damage what we have so long strived to build”. In an article in The Herald on 1st August 2020, the NC500 company are reported as saying that “investment and maintenance of public infrastructure in the north Highlands – such as public toilets, public litter bins and refuse collection and human waste disposal – as well public access (sic), is the responsibility of the Highland Council and Scottish Government”. The executive chairman of NC500 Ltd defended their work as “one of the biggest tourism success stories Scotland has seen for years – an incredibly effective branding and marketing initiative that has brought an unprecedented visitor boom to some of the nation’s most remote areas of natural beauty”. In addition, he underlined the estimated £23 million brought into the local economy and the approximately 180 full-time jobs they were responsible for creating. (“NC500 community petitions Sturgeon over tourist blight“, 1 August 2020 )

What consultation was there I wonder with local communities before this marketing exercise was launched six years ago? Who was making sure that the facilities would be adequate for the increased number of tourists or that the roads could support the additional traffic? Did anybody think that the chosen logo of a racing flag might encourage the idea that it was a route to be sped around as fast as possible? I was reading recently that Anders Holch Povlsen of Wildland, Danish owner of 220,000 acres of land in the north, now owns the NC500 route – how can somebody ‘own’ all these roads? How does this work?

As well as the downsides I’ve already mentioned, there’s also been criticism about travellers staying only one night in an area, about the increase in air pollution, holdups on single track roads and about tourist business being taken away from the interior of Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross.

Residents of Applecross have taken action to defend their community against the here-today-gone-tomorrow-leave-mess-for-others brigade of tourists. In “NC500 route gears up for big tourism challenge … by fighting dirty” (The Herald, 27 March 2021), Mike Merritt writes about the digging of ditches and the rolling of rocks around the village to prevent stupid parking on the shoreline; notices have also been put up with instructions to take litter home and not to leave human waste behind. Applecross Community Council also want to promote ‘slow tourism’ and attract visitors “who care about green tourism”.

I also read somewhere recently about one response being the appointment of tourist wardens and I thought “That could be a seasonal job for me” – though realistically I’d be better as an overseer, dealing with the morning paperwork after the wardens had been out through the night, armed with Thunderer Whistles, to waken, fine and move on anyone overnighting in a passing place or beside an ancient monument such as Ardvreck Castle. The polis can’t be everywhere.

Jamie Stone, Lib Dem MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross wants a camper van congestion charge in the area and, cut my fingers off, but I agree with him. There are so many blogs now about camper van tours on this route, including one that fair put up my blood pressure as the writer boasted about taking roads advertised as unsuitable: she deliberately went south to Lochinver via Drumbeg for example and then the next day, it was over the Bealach na Ba for her. These are the types of visitors who put off not only locals, but their fellow travellers: comments online include the coorse but no doubt correct description of the route as being “full of influencer-type bellends”; another described witnessing a group “kicking off as they couldn’t get into a fully-booked Applecross Hotel to eat”; a third warned fellow-English visitors not to “expect a Scottish experience as you could go the entire route and not meet a Scottish person”.

A more positive story emerged in The Inverness Courier on 30 April this year: “New company formed to buy hotels on North Coast 500 route“, written by Caroline McMorran. A newish company called Highland Coast Hotels Ltd has already bought the Kylesku Hotel and has plans to buy another 7 on both the west and east coast sections of the route. These will be open all year round so employment will be regular; they intend to use local supply chains and get local craftspeople involved. The chief executive, Roddy Watt, says that he and his fellow directors are “responsible people” who will focus on “slow, environmentally friendly tourism integrated into local communities” and not those “whizzing around the NC 500 at the rate of knots”. Their target market is high-end, but other folk who can’t afford fancy prices for food and accommodation but who want a peaceful Highland holiday also deserve to be catered for.

The Isle of Skye is another place where tourism is a double-edged sword. For years now, there have been reports of the island being full-up at times, pictures of cars parked any old how at beauty spots and of local people being priced out of the housing market by buy-to-let absentee landlords. On 18th April, there was a long letter in the Sunday National from a woman in Portree reflecting on how “Covid gave the island time to breathe, the environment to recover and the residents some time to enjoy their home.” She’s supportive of the new small businesses that have been set up, believing that they’ll retain some of Skye’s young population, but she’s rightly critical about the state of the local housing market, having a good go at not just “greedy absentee landlords” but also the online platforms and estate agents that “promote ‘property portfolios’ encouraging buy-to-short-let”. I didn’t know before that owners of Airbnb properties, which are second homes, don’t pay council tax and I can well understand why she’s angry that the profits from these houses don’t feed into the island community.

The estimable Andy Wightman had a full-page article in the Sunday National on 2 May on this very topic: “New normal is an opportunity to make tourism kinder on fragile communities“. He quotes Iomairt an Eilein, a group of young people on Skye who wrote to candidates in the Scottish Parliament election: “Profiteering investors are ransacking our island”. They believe it’s not just their communities but also their culture which will die unless strong action is taken. Mr Wightman has suggestions to make: regulating the housing market, changing planning law, capital gains tax on second home sales, “rights of pre-emption at local market rates” and councils able to buy land for new housing at existing-use value. In the meantime, he urges holidaymakers to take an interest in who owns the property they’re intending to stay in and to try not to be part of the problem. (What a pity he failed to be re-elected as an independent MSP on the Highland Regional list, especially as several members of the landed gentry got in, plus of course the Chief Tumshie himself.)

It’s not just Scotland that has these problems. The Covid pandemic has exposed once more Barcelona’s over-reliance on tourism, as Stephen Burgen wrote in The Observer on 2 August last year: “Empty Barcelona rues its reliance on tourist trade“. In the Ciutat Vella, the old city, which had “oriented itself almost entirely to tourism, soaring rents drove out traditional businesses and local residents.” The holiday-lets businesses had brought huge profits to their owners but had left the area with not enough local people “to sustain local commerce”. Now, Mr Burgen says, Barcelona will need to think about its future and “many in city hall believe it should focus on being a cultural destination”. Take note, Edinburgh.

I’ll finish with two recommendations for articles exploring the future of world tourism. In , Antonio Orti explains that regenerative tourism means visitors not only not damaging the places they visit, but making things better, and with local people seeing tourists “not as threatening but as beneficial”. It’s “an approach to travel that is respectful of ecosystems and the social fabric of destinations, while also being economically viable”. He refers to Belgium, New Zealand, Hawaii and Norway and also asks important questions such as whether we really just want to go back to what we did before and if local communities can take on the big companies and win.

Vijay Kolinjvadi of the University of Antwerp opens his article with a picture of crowds at Maya Bay which Thailand closed to tourists in 2018 “until its ecosystem returns to its full condition”. In , he loses no time in getting wired into those who believe they have the right to go to far away places with the freedom to do as they please at the “expense of local communities who suffer from the abuse of their land by tourism corporations and their local partners”. He questions whether local people benefit in either rural or urban areas; he outlines the environmental damage that can be done; he considers the effects of the pandemic, warning “the return to normal in the tourism sector does not only mean a return to the old exploitative and extractive practices but also poses a deadly prospect for the struggling host communities”. He advocates more leisure time for workers in the west so that we don’t feel the same urge to escape on a two-week holiday. He wants people living near “sites of cultural heritage or natural beauty” to decide how to manage them and to be able to keep the revenue from them. More controversially, he believes that in the post-pandemic world, air travel should be restricted to “essential purposes” – “The pandemic grounded flights; responding to climate change demands the same.”

The New York Times may have described regenerative tourism as “unicorn” but I feel sure that the young people of Skye fearing for the future of their home island would feel much in common with the tree planters of southern New Zealand and their Maori concept of tiaki – caring for people and place.


2 thoughts on “The Hurts in the Highlands

  1. Pingback: A mixter-maxter – Splendid, Bella!

  2. Pingback: Pontificating about Gaelic – Splendid, Bella!

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