Overtourism and littering in The Highlands
Overtourism noun [ U ] UK /ˌəʊ.vəˈtʊə.rɪ.zəm/ US/ˌəʊ.vɚˈtʊr.ɪ.zəm/
the situation when too many people visit a place on holiday, so that the place is spoiled and life is made difficult for the people who live there.
It's a phrase that you'd probably already heard of even before lockdown restrictions were eased. It's certainly something that has been in the collective consciousness for those of us who live in tourist hotspots over the last few years. Regardless of your perspective, as a local or as a visitor, it is an issue that has bubbled up more and more frequently, and this year it has apparently come to a head. Residents of the NC500 route in particular have been complaining about bad behaviour from 'wild' campers and the intense pressure that has been brought to bear on sites such as Sango Bay. It's a story oft repeated across the Highlands where Glen Coe, Glen Etive and Glen Nevis have all reported problems with access, inconsiderate parking, clogged roads and piles of abandoned litter.
Anecdotally the problem would appear to be worse this year, the mass influx of visitors desperate to have a post-lockdown break and reports of a 40% increase in visitor numbers compared to August last year is not going to be a happy bedfellow with a nervous population, poor infrastructure and reduced services. Those cuts to services - public toilets in particular, reduced accommodation options and a Health Service that really isn't built to cope with a sudden influx of patients if there was to be a Covid-19 outbreak, means that people are understandably reluctant to fling the doors open to the world.
But the world (or at least sizeable parts of the UK) have come anyway and they plan to stay awhile. We've gone from months of quiet roads and empty beaches to congestion, noise and litter at the flick of a switch. Pandora's Box is well and truly open and we're left with the problem of how to deal with the people who have come to visit.
Tackling bad behaviour, whether it's littering, not disposing of your waste correctly or poorly parked cars, is a good start. To be fair to local councils and the Government, we have seen a reasonably quick response with campaigns reminding people to keep the place tidy and to take their litter home. Is it too little too late? Possibly, but the sheer volume of traffic to the Highlands took many by surprise and the rise of 'dirty' and inconsiderate campers was shocking to all of us. Littering and a lack of environmental consideration has always been an issue but this was on a different scale entirely.
That said, you'll hear often hear the excuse that 'there weren't any bins' but that simply is not good enough. People know that littering isn't the done thing but they do it anyway and it's simply borne out of sheer laziness and a lack of respect for the environment and those that live there. Responsible travellers find a bin or take their crap home with them. If the bin is overflowing, have a think why that might be - services to some areas can be sporadic - and take it home with you.
There's an argument that the only way to really get to the nub of the issue is if we have a physical presence to deter poor visitor behaviour. This could be met with additional police or a better Ranger system. Rangers that had the power to hand out fines to anyone caught making a mess would be one option but they should also take a softer approach where they actively educate and interact with visitors to the Scottish countryside. Worryingly some of the Ranger services offered by the NTS are being threatened with redundancies at exactly the time when we really need them. These services cover areas like Glen Coe and Ben Lomond and it flies in the face of reason to cut them.
But how do you fund it? As an example, the NTS are struggling financially and are looking to cut costs to keep themselves afloat. Granted this isn't a new issue for them but Covid-19 has just compounded their financial woes. A tourist tax would be a good start. It's easy to implement - it really is - most booking engines factor will factor it in with zero effort from the provider - and it can be ring fenced so the communities that pay into it and also directly benefit from it. It wouldn't take a huge stretch to use that money to help pay for seasonal ranger services. We just need the industry and local authorities to get behind it and accept that it's a necessary evil in the current financial climate. It's clear that people still want to visit the area and there's little evidence to suggest that a tourist tax would have a negative impact on visitor numbers. I've always been on record as supporting it and I'm happy for a percentage of my walking tours to contribute towards better tourist infrastructure.
Ultimately the responsibility is ours alone, we are all the caretakers of our environment and it's important that we take the time to clean up after ourselves. We shouldn't have to rely on a Ranger Service or the Police to encourage us to clear up. It really shouldn't be that hard!
I'll finish by saying that the majority of visitors are considerate of their environment and certainly seem to be engaged with what's going on around them. Sadly the minority are having a disproportionate impact on their surroundings and really are ruining it for everyone else. Tourism is a key part of our lives in the Highlands and I for one have a vested interested in ensuring that it is as sustainable as possible.