Now that Scotland is seeing the benefits of increased tourism in the Highlands and Islands what’s needed is investment, not higher prices.
Time to acknowledge and celebrate success
There have been two big successes in rural tourism in Scotland lately. The first, the meteoric rise in popularity of the North Coast 500, is well known. The brainchild of the North Highland Initiative, the way that Scotland’s existing tourism offer has been packaged and marketed as the NC500 – Scotland’s answer to Route 66 – is a masterful stroke of genius. It’s captured the imagination not only of touring visitors but also of TV crews and journalists in a way that VisitScotland’s Marketing Team could only dream of.
The second is less well known and relates to the subsidy given to ferry operators serving the Western Isles, known as the Route Equivalent Tariff (RET). RET bases fares on the cost of travelling the equivalent distance by road and was introduced on the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree in October 2008, cutting fares by up to 55 per cent. It was rolled out to Islay, Colonsay and Gigha in October 2012, to Arran in October 2014 and will now be extended to Orkney and Shetland from early 2018.
In reducing the cost of ferries for vehicles it’s provided a very welcome boost to the tourism in the Outer Hebrides. In fact there’s been a ten-fold increase in ferry traffic over the last decade, particularly by motorhomes, with the annual spend by motorhomers now put at £2 million. According to the research carried out by Outer Hebrides Tourism this year motorhome visitors:
- spent an average of 7 days in the Outer Hebrides
- spent over 60% of nights on organised campsite, paying fees to local operators
- spent an average of just under £500 per trip on food, drink, fuel, goods, arts, crafts and meals with businesses in the Outer Hebrides
- accounted for around 2% of annual ferry traffic to the Outer Hebrides.
So what’s not to like?
This is all great news. So what’s the problem?
Well, all this increased tourism traffic is starting to put a strain on local infrastructure, including roads, car parks, ferries, toilet and waste facilities. In a previous post I described how some motorhomers are creating congestion and environmental issues by preferring to camp informally overnight in car parks and laybys rather than in campsites. This might not be much of an issue off-season when numbers are low. But when motorhome websites are highlighting ‘free camping’ opportunities – often incorrectly – it’s led to dozens of motorhomes squeezed in like sardines into car parks that were just not designed for this.
I’m all for informal camping, just not when it creates antisocial issues. Local campsites are losing out when a minority of motorhomes expect to camp for free; existing toilet and other facilities are put under pressure; and some even have the cheek to drive on to campsites to empty waste tanks even when they’ve stayed elsewhere.
A growing number of voices have called for change. Communities across the Highlands and Islands from Skye to Assynt have been holding public meetings to discuss how they can best manage the growing issues of waste disposal and congestion at local beauty spots and car parks. But now Alasdair Allan, Western Isles MSP, has written to Transport Minister Humza Yousaf asking him to consider a “motorhome levy” with the proceeds being used to improve local infrastructure.
Experiencing strong customer demand is a good problem to have
I put my head in my hands when I heard this. And I wasn’t alone. This move has been widely criticised by not only Outer Hebrides Tourism and other communities across the Highlands and Islands but also the motorhome community itself.
Right problem, wrong solution
Experiencing strong customer demand is a good problem to have! And the response by a business when demand grows isn’t to raise prices but to invest in extra capacity, so it can consolidate and support continued growth.
The very last thing anyone needs to do right now is to introduce a “motorhome levy” since all this will do is to choke off demand by visitors to travel to the Western Isles and tour the NC500. This is already the understandable reaction among the motorhome community. Why should they bother returning to Scotland when they could have a cheaper experience in France, Spain, Ireland or England? Just as fragile rural communities in the Highlands and Islands have started to feel the benefit from new jobs and higher incomes what’s needed now is investment, not taxation.
Unfortunately, Scotland (in common with the UK as a whole) often suffers from under-investment. There’s a cultural malaise that sees many businesses and public authorities reluctant to invest in success, underpinned by a lack of ambition. But what if things could be different? What if we have an ambition for Scotland to genuinely be a world leader in rural tourism, and back this up with the proper investment?
A positive vision
My vision sees a network of aires right across Scotland similar to those common in France and Germany. These would complement existing campsites by providing a few hardstanding pitches for motorhomes, including basic facilities of water and waste facilities (many motorhomes have on-board toilets and showers). For a low overnight fee they would attract people to stay overnight and take advantage of local shops, restaurants and petrol stations. There are many parts of the Highlands and Islands without a campsite with touring pitches, and aires would enable many more places to benefit from additional income in a way that manages the potential waste and congestion issues.
But we don’t need to look to the continent to see this working already. The West Harris Trust has already provided serviced pitches at Talla na Mara and Seilebost. These community-owned and run pitches have electrical hook-ups, 24-hour toilets, water, waste disposal and recycling facilities. There’s also the Britstops scheme where 760 garden centres, pubs, churches, gift shops and golf clubs right across the UK offer free overnight stops for motorhomes on the understanding that visitors will contribute to sustainable tourism by spending money locally.
If we had a network of low-cost aires across Scotland, supplemented with campsites and Britstops, we would then have an infrastructure able to cope with a rising number of tourists.
Rather than choke off tourism with a levy what we now need is investment in new and enhanced facilities. That will consolidate the successes so far and lay the foundations for future growth.
So where could this additional come from? Of course, we all know that Councils are strapped for cash but it’s local residents who are being negatively impacted at present and so it’s them who should be lobbying their Councillors to put in place a comprehensive investment plan. That will then generate increased jobs and incomes, for local residents as well as the operators of new facilities. Highland Council is the obvious authority to oversee any plan for the NC500. Even if public investment can’t cover the full costs of the upgraded facilities needed then the Councils, in conjunction with local tourism bodies such as the North Highland Initiative, could incentivise local entrepreneurs and businesses to take a lead.
It’s worth remembering that an effective tourism strategy is about development as well as marketing.