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The North Coast 500

picture of applecross nc 500

North Coast 500. Is this the answer to Sustainable Tourism?

In this article we examine sustainable Scottish Tourism. Is it the panacea it’s touted to be? Perhaps there are ways to provide an area with sustainable tourism? Take the North Coast 500 route as an example.

We all know the story. An area once rich in industry, employment and life becomes run down neglected and blighted as jobs, people and prospects leave town.

Regeneration, indeed survival, is left to those who remain. The industries remaining are enterprises that cannot  relocate. A new “industry” is needed, and that is invariably tourism.

Initially, this falls to farmers and agricultural workers on the periphery of the conurbation. By definition, agriculture cannot relocate. Animals can be sold and the farmer retire, but the land still remains. Someone then needs to step in and make the land work. Economic justification must make the case for this change. If not, there is no incentive and the change will not happen.

Framers can boost sustainable tourism round the North Coast 500 route

The average age of a farmer is now approaching 60 and the average farm size only 200 acres.

 It’s the role of local government to provide the necessary incentive to the change to sustainable tourism. This depends on the level of funding available locally and also the pool of human talent available to turn the investment into profit. Local government leaders identify the local entrepreneurial talent and the process begins. All’s well you say, but is it really?

Too often the level of Government money, either from Westminster or locally is too small, too widespread or misappropriated. At worst this means the project remains unfinished and at best fails to reach its potential and goals. This is especially true of Scottish Tourism where funding comes from Westminster.

Let’s take the case of the North Coast 500 route around the North of Scotland and the Highlands.

This Tourist Project provides an excellent study in how some of the system works and some doesn’t.

In March 2015, the Tourism Project Board Set up to the NC 500 to promote Sustainable Tourism around the highlands. The initial objective intended to deliver united benefits to businesses along the route.

Invariably these were identified as Accommodation and Refreshment businesses. The system worked partially. Bookings and tourist numbers increased, but all was not well.

Unforseen Problems

Road accidents were up 45% during the  first full year of the route’s operation (2016). This resulted in pressure on the local health services and associated agencies. Roads were damaged with the excess traffic stretching the general infrastructure. This is where it is incumbent on Local Authorities, with backing from central Government if requested, to ensure that sufficient funding is secured to maintain the project.

Furthermore, it is necessary to audit the performance of the project. Cost benefit analysis of the NC500 reveals 29000 more people visited the area in the first year of its inception. The spend was in excess of £9 MILLION. Great, you say. Yes but further analysis reveals that much of the benefit went to the larger towns, rather than smaller businesses, as was the original intention.

Tourist Trends on the North Coast 500

Visitors preferred to stay only one night in an area and then move on. Previously they would dwell for a few days, then move. This is a direct result of the way he route is marketed. “Do the route in a week” “Rush round and see it all” If you want to try this out for yourself, book Chrissy and give it a go!

Surely a more sustainable method would be to encourage visits to the area to be done in segments, over a period of up to say two years?  People will then spend time and money in different areas, reduce traffic and increase the local economy.   

Given other routes are now being invented what’s the way forward?

New routes are coming each year, based on the perceived success of the North Coast 500. The emphasis on these is a shorter route. The South West Coast one is 300 miles and the North East one is 250. Surely in the age of the dawn of electric cars, shorter routes are more sustainable?

I would prefer a way forward of highlighting towns and villages as destinations, rather than marketing a route. In the South West of Scotland, especially in the area of Wigtownshire, the authorities are desperate to develop tourism. Stranraer is being re developed now the ferries have moved to Cairn Ryan, and authorities are lining up to take the cash.

It’s chicken and egg, but the old saying “build it and they will come” holds true. I would argue for a modern 100 to 150 bedroomed hotel to be built in each town. This will encourage a shift in the way the route is used. It will also benefit local employment and the local economy. In addition associated service industries will be encouraged. Adding additional financial aid from local government would make this happen. The cost would be recouped from the inflow of tax. Cafes and restaurants will open, and the emphasis put on encouraging people to stay a while.

This is the way to ensure the sustainable regeneration of rural businesses, villages and towns.  

Does Tourism have to be Car Based?

So here is another can of worms! Given the days of the internal combustion engine ae numbered, what is the way forward?

I suggest we tackle the old problem of public transport. Clean reliable affordable. That’s all we need to get right. It doesn’t matter if its train or coach, or a mixture of both. What does matter is how the travelling public view the option. I know from personal experience, how satisfying it is to go on a long distance touring holiday using public transport. Unfortunately this was in France.

But let’s not give up hope. Get the towns in a designated for sustainable tourism inter connected with bus and rail, make sure the trunk links are in place, and all will be well. 

Credit: Photo of the North Coast 500 route by John S Pow Photography

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