Four ideas to manage the growing demand for “free camping”
The freedom of the road
As the main summer holiday season starts we’re now seeing more visitors on the roads, including motorhomes and campervans. It’s great to see people enjoying what Scotland has to offer and also spending in the rural local economy.
That’s how tourism should work, right? You travel, experience new places and activities, and support incomes and jobs in the local economy by buying food, accommodation and so on.
However, there seems to be a growing trend among a minority towards ‘free camping’, deliberately searching out car parks, lay-bys and roadside beauty spots where they need spend nothing. I frequently receive e-mails from people asking me to supply them with a map of “wild camping spots”, particularly along the North Coast 500. I don’t share such information, but politely direct them to great campsites instead, since attracting even more people to increasingly crowded hotspots just puts more pressure on local communities and the environment.
I appreciate this is a sensitive topic that can often divide opinion but I’d like to move beyond the ‘blame game’ to discuss constructive solutions. But first, let’s set out what’s actually happening just now.
I’ve written previously about ‘informal’ or ‘free’ camping in motorhomes and campervans. The motivation for many people, including myself, is to get away from the crowds and deliberately search out informal camping spots in remoter locations. The responsible approach is to arrive late, leave early and leave no trace. This is good practice and I want to make sure that those of who do behave responsibly like this aren’t penalised for doing so.
However, I do take issue with websites and forums designed to share GPS coordinates of free camping spots. Deliberately avoiding staying at campsites deprives local communities of much-needed income and is surely inconsistent with the idea of responsible tourism.
Take a popular beach location on the Moray coast, for example. I was contacted recently by someone highlighting the fact that up to 12 motorhomes, campervans and minibuses regularly stay overnight in the beach car park. This is in spite of the fact that there’s a ‘No Overnight Parking’ sign … and there’s a caravan park just 800 metres away.
A quick Google search reveals why. The car park is incorrectly listed on a motorhome wildcamping website as allowing overnight camping. But still, the many vehicles that continue to turn up ignore the sign – as well as the nearby caravan park.
This practice is a long way from what I see as low-impact informal camping. While one motorhome staying for a single night might seem reasonable to their owners I wonder if they stop to consider the cumulative impact of dozens of motorhomes turning up every week from April to October? Given such car parks generally don’t have facilities other than litter bins, what about rubbish collections, toilets, waste water and so on? In the Moray example, the car park belongs to a popular visitor attraction, so that local residents and other visitors sometimes can’t get parked. Some of those free campers sometimes even have the gall to walk along to the nearby campsite to use their showers and toilet facilities!!
Let’s scale up this single example across the whole of Scotland. The growing popularity of owning as well as hiring motorhomes and campervans means that there are more people touring Scotland – which in itself is a good thing. The recent impact study of the North Coast 500, for example, showed that it attracted an additional 29,000 visitors in its first year, with traffic volumes also increasing 10%. However, the report also highlighted challenges to ensure long term success of the NC500. These include maintaining the condition of the route, ensuring sufficient parking, waste facilities and public toilets, and continued efforts to encourage better driving. While more visitors to Scotland should of course be welcomed the fact that the report highlights the additional pressure placed on local services underlines my point.
Four possible solutions
So how do we encourage people to do the right thing?
Here are four ideas that I think now need more active consideration. They’re not necessarily new but equally, they’re not currently being taken forward.
- Do we need a network of aires in Scotland?
In France, there are over 2,000 aires – or serviced stopover sites – which are normally run by the local council and of varying sizes. They offer low-cost overnight parking for motorhomes, often with basic services such as water, chemical disposal and waste water disposal facilities. Toilets and showers generally aren’t provided since motorhomes tend to have these facilities anyway. Some are free and only charge for services, and others charge for overnight stays. Tents are not allowed so aires wouldn’t replace the great many good campsites across Scotland (and of course we need to continue to promote these). An approach similar to aires is already used on Tiree to help protect the fragile machair as well as on Harris, where the West Harris Trust reinvests the £5 overnight charge into community projects including site maintenance.
The Britstops scheme already operates across the UK where their guide contains details of pubs, visitor centres, farm shops and so on who are happy to host motorhomes and campervans overnight on the expectation that visitors will support sustainable tourism by buying local food and other products. The overnight stops don’t have facilities but are free to use, all for the £27.50 cost of the annual guide. Creating an additional network for aires would essentially extend this successful model.
For: Attracts overnighters to places where there are proper facilities; generates ongoing income; successful models already exist
Against: Cost to introduce; reduction in income for campsites.
2. Can we shut down the irresponsible websites and forums?
These sites often aren’t up to date and are only as good as the information they contain. But when they direct people towards particular locations without the proper facilities it’s no surprise that this inevitably leads to issues resulting from overuse.
For: Tackles the cause of the issue
Against: Can only request that the wild camping maps are removed.
3. Can we have motorhome and campervan hire companies sign up to a code of practice that promotes responsible tourism among their hirers?
There’s clearly an education issue, and this includes people hiring motorhomes and campervans who may be under the impression that Scotland’s ‘right to roam’ land access legislation covers vehicles (it doesn’t). A few years ago a code of practice was drawn up between SNH, Visit Scotland and several hire companies but I can’t find any information about it any longer. I’m pretty confident that the number of hire companies has mushroomed over the last five years so reintroducing this would seem a sensible action.
Tourism promotion agencies should also promote this code of practice, including Visit Scotland and the North Highland Initiative, who run the North Coast 500 project. The Scottish Tourism Alliance, the industry body, already has a clear position on the importance of sustainable tourism.
For: A straightforward and obvious solution
4. Can we raise awareness of the principles of responsible tourism?
This is also a no-brainer and I would have thought this message is already communicated via the popular guide books to touring and camping in Scotland. But given so many rely on social media these days, are the messages around responsible tourism clear enough on Facebook and Twitter? We hear a lot about “filter bubbles”, where people only take in the information on social media via the sites they ‘like’ or ‘follow’. So is there something more that needs to happen to raise wider awareness, particularly for those who might miss mainstream messages?
For: Needs to remain a priority
Against: Some people may still miss these messages unless the campaign goes sufficiently wide.
What do you think?
The bottom line is that we need to ensure that Scotland is open for visitors to enjoy – and that more visitors get to enjoy its fabulous scenery and experiences.
But there’s a fine line between being open and welcoming to visitors while making sure that tourism hotspots are managed in the interests of everyone as well as the environment. The popularity of motorhome/campervan touring is increasing and with it, the demand for free camping. So how do we make this work for everyone?