John Muir Trust report highlights Lochaber and wider Highlands tourism dilemma

Skye attracts more than 500,000 tourists a year with stunning areas of natural beauty. NO F09 Skye Cuillins
Skye attracts more than 500,000 tourists a year with stunning areas of natural beauty. NO F09 Skye Cuillins

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A new report published by the John Muir Trust confirms that tourism is increasingly viewed as a double-edged sword by many communities, including in Lochaber, who are on the frontline of dealing with visitor pressures and opportunities.

Scotland’s scenery is one of the country’s most valuable assets and tourism is an important and growing part of the economy – supporting more than 200,000 jobs and contributing more than £7 billion nationally.

But the report makes clear that successful promotion of Scotland’s rugged and remote landscapes has not come without a cost.

To gain a better understanding of the practical problems caused by growing visitor
numbers, the John Muir Trust interviewed 37 community representatives living in remote but popular tourist destinations across the Highlands, including Lochaber, Skye, Lewis and Harris.

The report – Frontline Realities: Rural communities and visitor pressures – reveals
widespread problems, with 97 per cent of interviewees reporting concerns over litter,
human waste, congestion on minor roads and inappropriate ‘wild’ camping.

Cecilie Dohm, policy officer for the John Muir Trust and lead author of the report, said people understood the need to maintain and nurture tourism, which is the economic
lifeblood of many communities in the most fragile and sparsely populated areas.

But she added: ‘At the same time, they feel strongly that existing levels of investment in rural infrastructure and resources is inadequate and unable to deal with the rising numbers and pressures.

‘With severe restrictions on international travel likely to remain in place for the near future, this summer is likely to see a huge wave of visitors from across the UK into some of our most popular destinations.

‘We believe that we need to empower local communities and ensure they have a valid voice in the key decision-making processes that affect them.’

The trust has welcomed the recent announcement by the Scottish Government to
double the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund to £6 million in 2021-2022 and wants to
maintain that funding into the future. But local authority cuts have already had an impact.

An example contained in the report is the area around Ben Nevis. The report states that, in 2018, it was estimated that around 300,000 people visited Glen Nevis.

In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of visitors, particularly to the Steall Falls and Ben Nevis, with around 160,000 annual visitors to Ben Nevis in 2018 compared to around 120,000 in 2013.

Interview participants from Lochaber confirmed that visitor numbers and pressures
were increasing year by year, and that the main tourism season was getting busier and lasting longer.

One of those quoted in the report is Rob Cochrane, seasonal ranger at Nevis Landscape Partnership, who said the area was certainly becoming more and more popular.

‘It’s bringing money into the local economy and raising the profile of the area,
which is great, but the physical volume of visitors is starting to exceed the infrastructure, from the capacity of the roads network to the footfall on paths, the amount of litter, and the need for guided walks. Across the board, capacity has been reached and exceeded,’ he said.

Based on the feedback from interview participants and experience as land managers, the trust is recommending practical and policy solutions ahead of the summer 2021 wave of visitors, including communities being actively involved in planning visitor management and campervan hire companies being required to provide tourists with appropriate guidance on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, how to navigate single track roads, and how to dispose of waste.

Visit Scotland, says the trust, should promote ‘slow’ tourism and encourage multiple night stays, rather than fleeting visits, in order to maximise local economic value and minimise the carbon footprint of tourism.