Helen McDade: Industry in beauty spots is not good for tourism

Tourists decide to spend time in Scotland for many reasons, but one factor trumps them all: our unique scenery and landscapes.

Tourists dont come to see wind turbines, says Helen McDade. Picture: John Devlin.

According to VisitScotland, 50 per cent of overseas and domestic tourists surveyed cited the our scenery and landscape as their primary driver for visiting, with that figure rising as high as 71 per cent among European visitors.

The next biggest tourism draw – our history and culture – scored just 33 per cent.

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What’s clear is that the perception of Scotland’s landscapes and natural heritage are crucial to the health of our tourism sector. So why do we think that permitting industrial developments like commercial wind farms, electricity transmission and super-quarries in scenic ­areas won’t upset that perception?

We know for a fact that it will. A survey carried out by YouGov for the John Muir Trust has revealed that the majority of Scottish adults – 55 per cent – are ‘less likely’ to visit scenic areas in Scotland if they contain large scale infrastructure.

Just three per cent were ‘more likely’ to visit, while 26 per cent said that the existence of large scale developments would make no difference.

A similar YouGov poll in 2013 found 51 per cent of respondents were ‘less likely’ to visit a scenic area which contains large scale developments while 28 per cent said they would definitely visit such areas anyway – but it’s clear that perceptions are hardening against the industrialisation of natural landscapes.

It’s not just visitors who care – 63 per cent polled in the Highlands and Islands are ­concerned about the impact of such industrial-scale development.

That’s why the John Muir Trust’s Keep it Wild ­campaign is urging people to show their support for Scotland’s Wild Land Areas – a network of 42 areas across Scotland characterised by perceived naturalness, ruggedness and absence of major human infrastructure.

A recent development proposal demonstrates why such protection is ­needed. The Court of Session in ­Edinburgh has been considering a judicial review of a decision to approve Creag Riabhach wind farm in Altnaharra that will allow the development of 22 turbines up to 125m tall, including five within Wild Land Area 37.

The case highlights what the Scottish Government said in June 2014, that they intended to give strengthened protection for Wild Land Areas. The government’s approval for the Creag Riabhach development has cast doubt on this, as the permission granted was the first to encroach the boundaries of a designated Wild Land Area.

What’s needed is provision in the government’s forthcoming Planning Bill to give Wild Land Areas protection from damaging industrial-scale development, similar to the protection already in place for wind farms in National Parks and National Scenic Areas (NSAs).

Our policymakers have to pay attention, before it’s too late.

Helen McDade is head of ­policy at John Muir Trust.