Updated: Jul 18, 2019
After an exchange on Twitter with a couple of people about tourism in the Highlands and Islands I started to consider how our visitors spend their time when they’re over here. We’ve been running a BnB in Drumnadrochit for a couple of years now and I’ve worked in Tourism for over 10 years so I’d like to think I’m reasonably qualified to comment. Although I can’t claim to be an expert; years of living and working in the Highlands has given me first-hand experience of how our visitors spend their time.
A recent comment by Katie Tunn on Twitter in response to an article talking about the clichés in social media photography had a ring of truth to it and I started to think about the way in which our visitors spend their time…
I can’t talk for anyone living in Skye, but my experience living in Drumnadrochit hosting and talking to visitors from all over the world during the last couple of years would back her statement up to some degree. Most seem intent on ‘doing’ Urquhart Castle before heading west to Eilean Donan Castle and Skye. It’s apparently a mad dash to get in as many of the sites as possible with very little time spent exploring. Get to point A, take photos of point A, grab a selfie, post ’em on Social Media, on to point B and repeat until you run out of castles, mountains, road and money.
Someone else responded to her tweet and asked where the harm is in all of this and it’s a fair question. At face value, it’s their holiday, tourism in Scotland is booming (£7 Billion per annum at last count) and it’s surely not up to us to tell them how they should be going about their business? However there is a flip side to this and one in which there is some degree of harm being caused.
f I use my own experience of being a BnB provider and run a quick potted survey of the guests we’ve had over the last two years, I find that 90% are arriving in hire cars and the majority are en-route to Skye. But what really struck me is the sheer amount of miles that they’re willing to do on a day to day basis, leaving them very little time to stop, explore the area and properly relax. It seems to me that visitors are mostly interested in cramming in as much as possible without really stopping to savour it.
I’ll give you some examples:
Guest Number One was on a tour, visiting castles across the UK. He’d made up his own itinerary and set out to go to as many castles as possible in the space of about a week. The day he got to us he’d driven up from England solely to visit Urquhart Castle. He arrived in the nick of time to get a look round and take a few photos and eventually got to us at about 8pm. He then told me he had to leave at 5am the next day to get to Penrith. He drove through the whole of Scotland to see one castle only to head straight back down to England again. He hadn’t even factored in anything like Edinburgh or Stirling castles. Frankly the man was exhausted. He seemed to be enjoying himself but I did worry about whether he was going to be safe to drive.
Guest Number Two was travelling with his wife and were on a ‘babymoon’ — basically a holiday before their first child arrived. She was 6 months pregnant and they were also doing a ridiculous amount of driving. They’d driven up from Campbeltown to get to us via a few stops at Oban, Glen Coe and Fort William. The restaurants and cafes had stopped serving by the time they’d arrived in Drumnadrochit so their only option was to grab some dinner from the local Scotmid to make back at ours. That in itself wasn’t too dramatic and guests arriving late after having a long day out exploring isn’t going to be anything new.
It was their itinerary for the next day that worried me. They aimed to leave us about 9am, head to Eilean Donan Castle and then make their way up North via sections of the NC500 before getting to Wick at 5pm. 5pm was the time that they had to get back with their hire car. From there their intent was to get a taxi to Thurso so that they could get a berth on the Northlink ferry to Orkney. Nuts. A crazy itinerary that I struggled to get my head round. I mean it’s do-able but it’s not like they’re going to be eating up miles of pan-flat motorway. This is hilly, twisting and challenging driving conditions, and that’s just if the weather behaves itself. Bad enough if you’re a local but to someone new to the area it’s going to be a little stressful!
Now these are two examples are extremes and not necessarily that typical of your average tourist meandering through the Highlands. However it is undeniable that many are hiring cars and setting out to cram in as much as possible in a relatively short period of time. This is bound to lead to accidents and sadly it does. Traffic incidents on the A82 do increase during the summer months and this can be directly attributed to tourist traffic.
I directly observed what Katie said in her tweet last weekend while I was on Skye. We stopped off at Kilt Rock with the aim of taking photos (for Social Media obviously!) and to take in an area of Skye I’d never been to before. The views across to the cliff are superb and the view back across to the Trotternish Ridge are really worth soaking in.
Directly after I pulled in, three tour coaches (same company, each holding about 40 passengers each) stopped and disgorged their passengers. They were there all of ten minutes before everyone hopped back in and got whisked away to the next spot. Aside from the slightly breathless nature of their visit I was left wondering why on earth the tour company thought it was a good idea to convoy three coaches so that they arrived at each site at the same time. Parking is tight in some of these spots so I’m not sure why you would want to make life harder for yourself. Of course there was a preponderance of selfie sticks, lots of people with their backs to the falls (I swear some of them didn’t look face-on to any of it!) getting their selfies done, fixed smiles plastered to their faces while desperately trying to stop hats and glasses flying off into the Minch in the wind.
Which brings me back to the harm, some of which is already being addressed. This intense ‘must do, must see’ tourism has environmental issues– more tour buses, more hire cars, less parking and a lack of available public conveniences all adds to the impact on the environment. Kilt Rock, The Old Man of Storr, The Fairy Pools and The Fairy Glen all have their own horror stories in regards to the way that their immediate surroundings are being affected by this increase in bodies. Does the desperation to get the photo disconnect us with reality? Does viewing it through a 7” screen help us ignore the ruts in the road, the ‘tributes’ left to the fairies and the other human detritus defiling our semi-wild areas? Artificial tributes to fairies in environmentally sensitive areas have seemingly given us the idea that littering is ok.
Personally I don’t care if it’s a pretty flag, a photo of a loved one or a handful of change, it is litter. Take it home with you or put it in a bin. On top of that there are many local complaints of public urination and this is only likely to get worse due to Highland Council’s insistence on closing public conveniences or conversely in the case of Drumnadrochit, slapping on a hefty 50p charge for the pleasure of using the rather grotty loos in the Information Centre Car Park.
Speaking of the Fairy Glen in Uig, I saw a comment on Instagram complaining about the removal of stones from the ‘fairy circles’. She was outraged to see someone take one of small pebbles away with them… failing to realise that these circles are man-made and are the invention (allegedly) of some of the more cynical tour guides in more recent years. The real problem here is that these stones have been removed from bordering dry-stone walls which themselves have their own heritage that should be preserved.
Social Media is clearly one of the main drivers and, for Scotland in particular, it is a huge success story. A combination of stunning scenery, famed Scottish hospitality, culture, food, events from the Edinburgh Festival to any number of music festivals gives you an endless amount of possibilities to make your social media channel of choice look pretty damned impressive. A generation who are increasingly clued into technology are sharing those experiences through that same technology. It would be easy to grumpily mutter about Millenials being glued to their gadgets and refusing to engage with the real world but that’s just lazy thinking given that the number of connected devices per person is expected to reach 6.58 devices by 2020. This would indicate a total of around 50 billion connected devices worldwide… so clearly not just the preserve of young folk, old duffers are just as capable of using the web.
The problem is knowing what we should do and how we react. Pointing fingers and demanding tourists go away and leave us alone is ultimately unhelpful. Likewise griping about the traffic and glowering at campervans raises our blood pressure but doesn’t do a whole lot else. The tourist dollar is something we depend on and reacting negatively could drive people away. Fortunately groups like Skye Connect have sprung up and have been a driving force working with residents, businesses and tourists to make access more pleasant for everyone. Encouraging visitors to come to Scotland outside of the main summer season is also a notion that seems to be gathering a bit of steam.
The Highlands in wintertime can be truly spectacular and there’s the added bonus of getting the place a bit more to yourself. Spreading the load could well be one part of a solution that keeps both visitors and residents happy. Autumn is equally spectacular and arguably one of the most colourful seasons of the year as the leaves on the trees turn shades of gold and yellow during that final burst of light before winter.
‘Slow Tourism’ is another concept being bandied about and Scotland is well placed to take advantage of that idea. Rather than rushing from place to place, slow tourism encourages us to take our time and appreciate what’s around us. From a leisurely walk along a beach, to a slow train-ride up North or just sitting in a cafe watching the world go by; these are all good experiences and just as worthy as trying to squeeze as much in to your holiday as humanly possible. Coorying up in front of a fire with a dram in hand is undeniably Scottish and ‘slow’.
Ultimately a balance needs to be struck in regards to the best way forward. And that responsibility lies with all of us. It’s up to us as locals to be the best examples of how to interact with the environment. Businesses need to be respectful of the same and should try and spread themselves out rather than going for the easy options. They need to spend time dispelling some of the recent myths about fairy tributes and stone circles and dissuade their guests from leaving yet another tower or adding to a spiral pattern of stones.
Our history and culture is rich enough without having to manufacture trite and facile nonsense. Finally visitors themselves should refer back to that old cliched but still very relevant phrase:
Leave only footprints, take only pictures, kill nothing but time.