The upsides and downsides of tourism in rural Scotland

Logo: John Muir Trust

By Hebe Carus , Policy Officer

Marketing initiatives such as the North Coast 500 route, and promotion of our stunning remoter landscapes in Scotland by government-sponsored organisations such as Visit Scotland, have been a success when measured against economic benefits, but is that the only important criteria?

JMT volunteers suilven path work June 2018 (Chris Puddephatt)
JMT volunteers suilven path work June 2018 (Chris Puddephatt)

Alongside the marketing there has been a reduction in facilities such as toilets and waste management in order for local authorities to save money due to tightened budgets. Facilities for campervan waste disposal and roads maintenance are not keeping pace with increased vehicles, and upland footpath maintenance almost exclusively relies on donations, charity and lottery funds.

Increasingly it is becoming clear that there needs to be a balance between the economic boost and the associated impacts, and managing these within acceptable to-be-defined limits to protect the very natural resource that much of the tourism depends upon.

Communities are expressing concern – the very communities that should be seeing benefits through jobs and tourist spend. The John Muir Trust works closely with community interests – land owning and other groups. A survey we undertook of community representatives around the land that the Trust owns or manages revealed a strong feeling that the situation was not sustainable and that urgent action was needed. We don’t want to get to the stage of the anti-tourist protests by local residents in Majorca!

Bla Bheinn car park composting toilet 2019 (Richard Williams / JMT)
Bla Bheinn car park composting toilet 2019 (Richard Williams / JMT)

The John Muir Trust’s main aims are to protect / conserve, inspire / connect, and repair / rewild. We care deeply that people have the opportunity to have wild experiences – both visitors and residents.

The Trust is doing what it can on its own with the generous support of our members and charitable trusts including –

  • investing more than £500,000 in the past four years to repair footpaths in partnership with local communities and businesses
  • installing composting toilets, and upgrading car parking facilities (partly supported by the Scottish Government)
  • providing ranger services at six of our seven properties.

We are meeting the relevant Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary next year and our questions will be:

  • Where businesses benefit from visitor marketing, but the impacts are felt by the whole community, how do we manage that?
  • Where is the quality of the visitor experience calculated in the drive for economic growth, and how can consideration be taken of the intangible costs to the quality of the experience? Do we want loyal repeat visitors or many one-off visitors?
  • Does it matter if visitors move through an area quickly only taking selfies? Even some tourist businesses are concerned that the change in character is impacting on their longstanding regulars likelihood of returning. Should “slow tourism” be promoted instead as a better fit with the wild experiences that attracts visitors to these areas? Would this increase the appreciation and support for wildness and translate into greater conservation of the wilds? 
  • The Scottish Government has launched a consultation on enabling local authorities to be able to introduce a tourist tax (click here) but this is primarily about how and from whom it could be collected, and nothing about strategically planning how it might be spent. Highland Council is also undertaking a consultation, and one of their questions asks if it should be spent on general Council costs. There is no clear strategic plan to spend any resulting funds on facilities to manage the visitor impacts – would that be just?
  • Can tourism be promoted and managed so it positively contributes to wild places through enhancement and quality experiences creating a demand for rewilding. This would also result in benefits for tackling climate change and biodiversity loss at the same time. Surely that is the ideal win-win?
  • How do we spread tourism beyond the favoured honeypots – is there room for ecological enhancement in other areas that could, in the future, become places that people would want to visit?
Tree planting on Schiehallion (Liz Auty / JMT)
Tree planting on Schiehallion (Liz Auty / JMT)

To ensure the economy, communities and the environment are fully integrated into visitor management planning, the John Muir Trust is suggesting the following:

1. Destination management plans setting out how tourism can sustain and balance the needs of communities and the environment to ensure:

  • community participation in planning visitor management
  • assessment of the full social, economic and environmental impacts to inform the type of tourism we want and where
  • the benefits are spread across a wider area through investment in ‘natural infrastructure’ such as peat and woodland to tackle climate change and create wildlife habitats.

2. Strategic targeting of funding (where it is most needed at a national level across all destination management plans) in order to: 

  • ensure priority infrastructure and facilities are delivered proactively e.g. footpaths, roads, waste facilities, ranger services, visitor information points
  • encourage a shift in marketing to “slow tourism,” multiple night stays, public transport etc.
  • enhance the environment on which tourism depends such as upland footpath maintenance and landscape scale ecological restoration.

The John Muir Trust believes we can change from focussing purely on economic benefits, and reactively trying to manage negative impacts, to enabling positive benefits for communities and the environment at the same time as an economic boost. It is a challenge, but with the right government and local authority policies, we believe this is possible and Scotland can lead the way.

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