What is a national park worth to a visitor? How much do visitors value the public infrastructure that they use when on holiday?
The paths, cycleways, ranger bases, signage, visitor centres and car parks all come with a cost to the public and private purse. Visitors obviously contribute massively to local economies across Scotland and there is an indirect link between this and the public funding of infrastructure through bodies like the Cairngorm National Park Authority, Forestry Commission Scotland, and Sustrans amongst others.
In other countries there is a more direct link between the visitor and public infrastructure. In the US you pay to enter national parks; many European destinations have a local tourism tax.
Recently, areas of the UK have begun to use a variety of direct funding mechanisms to raise money. This is now being augmented with new technologies and the growing crowdfunding culture to help deliver infrastructure projects.
The Cairngorms have 666 miles of core paths on public and private land. Over the past 15 years, more than £10million has been spent on upgrading high and low ground paths, such as the Old Logging Way, Speyside Way extension and all the key upland paths. This has been a significant achievement and is an important attractor for the area, with statistics showing that walking is the single biggest activity for the 1.7million visitors to the Cairngorms.
However, the maintenance costs of the paths alone is roughly £500,000 per annum and this does not take into account one-off costs, like the £1.5million needed to repair two bridges across the Dee which suffered severe storm damage last year.
The major upgrading of visitor infrastructure will always require public funding but there is a need for all of us to think about how we might contribute to maintenance and upkeep of such vital economic infrastructure.
Visitors are willing to make a payment for the upkeep of a special area as long as they know the money is spent locally on something tangible and as long as this information is communicated clearly.
People will happily pay parking charges if they know that £25,000 raised from a particular car park will be spent on nearby path upgrades. If people do not feel a connection between payment and result, they are less likely to give willingly.
Scotland has never been more popular as a destination with the national parks, Skye, the NC500 and other areas seeing record visitors. This brings with it pressure on public infrastructure. We need to find the right approach for visitor giving and we need to be open and transparent about how funding is spent.
If we want to ensure that Scotland remains a ‘must visit’ destination we need to ensure the public infrastructure meets the expectations of local, national and international visitors.
Since the Cairngorms is a park for all, we need to make it easy for all our visitors to give a little back.
Grant Moir is CEO, Cairngorms National Park Authority. He tweets at @cairngormsCEO