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Opinion: Responsible tourists are more than welcome to return to the Highlands

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VisitScotland regional leadership director for the Highlands and Outer Hebrides, Chris Taylor.
VisitScotland regional leadership director for the Highlands and Outer Hebrides, Chris Taylor.

by Chris Taylor, VisitScotland’s regional leadership director.

We are all looking forward to being able to explore a little further, to getting back to our favourite locations, visitor attractions, cafes, restaurants and hotels, however we won't just push a button and tourism will recover – everyone has been affected this last year and from the industry’s point of view, we've had a year of very little investment, job losses and sadly, business closures – it will take time and significant energy, focus and collaboration to get us back to the thriving industry we all know and love. But with the right support, tourism and events can lead the economic recovery, help create jobs and stimulate investment where it’s needed most.

Almost a year ago, in June 2020, I said something very similar and it’s interesting to reflect on what’s changed as we head into summer 2021. The answer is quite a lot.

Over the last six months, VisitScotland has led a national group looking at visitor management. Comprised of all the relevant bodies, including local authorities, Police Scotland, Nature Scot and many others, the group developed plans for new infrastructure and co-ordinated a whole package of visitor messaging that is now being targeted at potential visitors. We need to remember that the vast majority of our visitors want to do the right thing. We need to find ways to help them do that.

Ness Walk hotel in Inverness, a favourite with NC500 visitors. Picture: Gary Anthony.
Ness Walk hotel in Inverness, a favourite with NC500 visitors. Picture: Gary Anthony.

Our recently launched responsible tourism campaign encourages visitors to respect, protect and enjoy this country. We want to inspire Scots to travel responsibly once current restrictions ease; encourage them to tread lightly in the places they visit and educate visitors on responsible actions to ensure tourism remains a sustainable industry, well into the future. We’re targeting visitors across Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, as well as more traditional radio, billboards and adverts and at key points visitors will use, such as petrol stations.

I am also encouraged by the amount of investment in the critical infrastructure that our visitors rely on. The Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund for example, has approved over £3.5 million to 17 Highland projects including Eigg, Glen Nevis, Portree, Cromarty, Storr, Glenfinnan, Bealach na Ba, Mallaig and Traigh, Blabheinn, Glenmore, Lochinver, Glencoe and Glen Etive, Ardnamurchan – a mixture of new parking, visitor interpretation, upgraded and accessible toilets and new facilities to help manage motorhomes. Highland Council recently unveiled a £1.5 million visitor management plan including more countryside rangers to help manage any issues arising.

A responsible approach is also at the heart of the £25 million of new investment recently announced to support tourism recovery. As well as a marketing fund, a holiday voucher scheme will be created to support a more socially sustainable and inclusive tourism industry, a days out incentive scheme will encourage visits to attractions, tours, activities and experiences, a talent development programme will build skills and opportunities for tourism and hospitality staff and a Net Zero Pathway will put Scotland’s tourism industry on a clear route to becoming more sustainable.

Cycling on the North Coast 500.
Cycling on the North Coast 500.

This year, the Highlands will, again, be the number one destination for many seeking a staycation, and why not?

We have spectacular scenery and views, wild landscapes, dark skies, breathtaking journeys, amazing coastlines, wonderful outdoor experiences and delicious locally-produced food and drink.

As we start to welcome visitors back again, our popular sites are likely to get busy at peak times. This is a perfect time for Highland residents to explore a bit more off the beaten track and seek out those quieter spots. It’s also a perfect excuse to treat yourself – indulge in a special meal out, or night away. Enjoy and experience our iconic attractions, stunning places to stay and innovative bars, cafés and restaurants, serving the best fresh, local food and drink – the choice is endless, with accommodation and attractions reopening from Monday, April 26.

Over the last year, tourism businesses operated to a fantastically high standard and should be proud of the efforts they have made to keep everyone safe and to safeguard jobs. Remember too, that while businesses have been open, they have also really suffered as a result of the pandemic and will need the continued support of visitors and local people to keep them going into the future.

Reopening tourism will give the Highlands a much-needed cash injection, helping get thousands of people in our communities back to work. But it also plays a vital role in helping our towns and villages to thrive, supporting the services we all rely on and crucially, contributing to our wellbeing.

It is at times like these that we need to take stock and remember to just how lucky we are to live in the Highlands. Many of our visitors have been locked down for the last year in towns and cities across the country and are understandably eager to explore our stunning landscape once more.

We’ve had this to ourselves for the last year and now we need to recognise the huge value that our region can offer as people travel again, to connect once more with nature and find ways to restore and reset in the Highlands.

We’ll continue to work with, and support, businesses to ensure we rebuild this vital part of Scotland’s economy. ‘Thanks’ doesn’t quite cut it, but I would like to thank each and every person who helps make our tourism industry the best in the world. You’re doing an amazing job, and the future will be even brighter.

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