Strontian activities operator proposes visitor numbers survey

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As the end of another peak tourist season draws to a close, Lochaber residents, many of whom make a living from hospitality, are left to count both the income from, but also the cost of, the thousands of visitors who descend on this area each year.

There is no doubt that tourism supports a large amount of the local population creating business and employment opportunities in hospitality, arts and crafts and outdoor pursuits.

However, there is a growing concern at the negative impact and the downside of attracting such large numbers of people.

There has been much reported from the NC500 and Skye on the issues surrounding what has been termed ‘over-tourism’ with other popular tourist destinations reporting similar problems.

A Facebook group entitled ‘Stop Tourists Trashing Mallaig, Morar & Arisaig’ sprang up in August and quickly attracted more than 400 likes with locals sharing stories of wild campers leaving rubbish, dumping toilet waste and damaging the area.

The problem is obvious but the solution appears to be rather more complicated and Karl Bungey, of Otterburn B&B and Otter Adventures in Strontian, has some suggestions and ideas which he is working up with SMMAATA (Sunart, Morvern, Moidart, Ardnamurchan, Ardgour Tourist Association) in the hopes of preventing the issues of over-tourism here before it becomes a problem.

‘Identifying the actual number of visitors you want to attract is the first step,’ said Mr Bungey. ‘When I talk to fellow accommodation providers, I frequently hear that they are full throughout the season and are rushed off their feet, and yet these same businesses continue to advertise and promote the area even though we clearly already have more visitors than we can manage. Add to that problems such as too many cars on our single-track roads.’

He added: ‘The first thing is to conduct a baseline survey so that we can ascertain the levels of visitor impact before they start. I’m proposing that we work together with CAOLAS (Community Association of Lochs and Sounds) to measure the levels of pollution, litter and plant and marine life in areas around Loch Sunart, so we know where we are just now.

‘We can then carry on measuring so that we can tell what impact increased marine and road traffic has. We can also work out what facilities we need to support larger numbers of visitors in terms of rubbish bins, public toilets and toilet disposal points.’

There is also the worry that too many people visiting can negate the very thing that enticed them here in the first place. A natural wilderness with few people, lots of wildlife and unspoiled beauty can soon disappear under crowds of people.

As well as ensuring the number of people who come to the area is limited to levels that can be accommodated, catered for and supported by the infrastructure, he also wants to make sure it is the right sort of visitor who comes.

‘We have people coming here year after year because they are specifically looking for somewhere remote, cut off from the fast-paced towns and cities and filled with more trees and animals than cars and people.

‘It is important to make sure when we advertise this area as somewhere to visit we show the reality of it alongside the beauty. Alongside pictures of sunsets and wildlife encounters, I also make sure I put up rough paddling conditions in kayaks and talk about rainy days.’

Talking about his onw business, Mr Bungey said he practices what he preaches, making sure that he grows his business slowly.

‘I don’t return with visitors to the same places time and again; I don’t encourage my guests to drive for miles. I tell them to take it slow and see things at a relaxed pace, taking in everything that the area has to offer and supporting all the smaller local businesses in the area too,’ he said.

‘I want people to feel lucky to be here, rather than coming for a guaranteed experience. I hope our visitors understand that they are coming to visit a wonderful, largely untouched place and that they too have a responsibility to help keep it that way.’