An influx of tourists is expected on the 500-mile circuit, which winds around Inverness-Shire, Easter Ross, Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross this summer as limits remain on foreign travel due to the pandemic.
While businesses are keen for the season to begin, work has been ongoing to manage potential overcrowding, congested roads and poor countryside conduct that was experienced last summer as lockdown eased.
The Explore North Coast 500 campaign has now been launched to encourage people to venture deeper into the north and west Highlands in a bid to reduce pressures on the route, protect the fragile landscape, promote longer stays in the area and allow the benefit of tourist numbers to be felt across wider range of attractions.
Destinations promoted by the campaign include Smoo Cave, Duncansby Head, Wick Heritage Centre, Castle of Mey, Sandwood Bay, Attadale Gardens, Gairloch Museum and Torridon Countryside Centre and Deer Museum.
Craig Mills, head of operations at North Coast 500 Ltd, said it was working to promote the “safe and responsible” re-opening of the North Highlands this summer.
He said: “It’s really important that we all work together to help each other through the challenges ahead after almost a year in lockdown.
“With its breath-taking beauty and endless opportunities for getting close to nature, North Coast 500 is the perfect way to explore and rediscover the north Highlands.”
The strategy has been launched in collaboration with NatureScot, formerly Scottish Natural Heritage, and North Highland Initiative, which promotes business and economic interests in the area.
The campaign comes amid a growing emphasis on ‘slow tourism’, with a similar move made on Skye to move focus away from the ‘big five’ visitor draws, which include the Fairy Pools and The Quiraing, and the culture of ‘bucket list” and Instagram-driven visits.
The North Coast 500 campaign is also encouraging motorists to get out of their car and enjoy time hiking and wildlife spotting.
Drivers are encouraged to book ahead and move on if destinations look busy. Keeping the north Highlands free of rubbish is another key plank of the campaign with travellers urged to be mindful of their impact on the environment.
Ian Sargent, NatureScot's nature reserve manager, said the NC500 route showcased “outstanding” nature and cultural heritage, including the UNESCO-recognised North West Highland Geo-Park, which features geological formations that reflect two-thirds of Earth’s timeline.
Mr Sargant said: “As lockdown restrictions lift, we want everyone to explore our world-renowned outdoors, have an amazing adventure and help conserve and protect our unique nature by following the Scottish Outdoor Access Code – remember to care for the environment; respect the interests of other people, and be responsible for your actions.”
David Hughes, board member of North Highland Initiative, said: “The north Highlands has over 10,000 square miles of wild, wide open countryside, rugged coastlines, breath-taking lochs and majestic mountain ranges as a place of tranquillity to slow down, take stock and refresh after lockdown.”