Scotland is frequently listed among the world’s favourite travel destinations, and it’s no wonder. Our scenery is hard to beat and you don’t have to go very far to see it.
Accordingly, tourism is one of the country’s great success stories and a mainstay of our economy, bringing in around £50 million each year. But now there are increasing concerns that some of our most fragile communities are becoming victims of their own success and are buckling under the strain of tourist hordes.
Just this summer visitors were being told to keep away from Skye unless they had booked accommodation because the island was “full”.
Not long afterwards, Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan called for a levy on motorhomes. This was prompted by a tenfold rise in the number crossing by ferries to tour the islands in the past decade, putting increasing pressure on roads, toilets and other infrastructure.
Then only last week renowned outdoors expert, author and broadcaster Cameron McNeish questioned whether the tourism chiefs were acting responsibly by encouraging people to drive environmentally polluting vehicles 500 miles around the wilds of Scotland on the now famous North Coast 500 road trip, which has been successfully marketed as our very own version of Route 66.
And some Highlanders have been reacting with horror at suggestions that expanded car parking could be created to alleviate jams at the Fairy Pools on Skye, a site that has seen a huge mushrooming of visitors in recent times.
Most of us would like to see tourism continue to thrive across Scotland, particularly in rural areas where other livelihoods are thin on the ground. But it’s clear we need a sustainable solution that benefits both locals and visitors.
So what are the options for managing these ever-increasing numbers of wheeled campers visiting the most far-flung parts of our land?
There has been opposition to the campervan tax suggestion, with critics saying that raising costs will not solve the problem but may instead actually kill the golden goose.
I like the ideas set out by blogger Ewan, who writes on the Wild About Scotland site and is himself a campervan aficionado. He suggests we create a network of continental-style Aires Services – motorhome stopovers, where overnight parking is permitted. These are provided in many places across Europe and Scandinavia.
But much closer to home, on Tiree, an innovative “freedom camping” scheme has been running with great success since 2010.
Tiree in the Inner Hebrides is one of the sunniest – and windiest – outposts in Scotland. Home to white sandy beaches, fertile land and iconic wildlife, it is entirely privately owned. Locals rely on crofting and tourism for income.
Off-road driving and parking are forbidden unless prior permission is sought from the community or landowners, with a number of “wild” pitches set out across the island. Campers must pay a modest fee of up to £12 a night, most of which goes to the crofters.
Stephanie Cope, of Tiree Ranger Service, which manages the scheme, says camping guests are “welcomed and appreciated” for their vital role in island tourism and are “directly supporting the traditional crofting environment and way of life that prevails here”.
Vehicle campers continue to increase, dispelling concerns that the measures might stymie tourism. At a time when councils are keen to boost visitors to the isles, but indisposed to finance infrastructure to support this growth, she says Tiree has made strides toward a sustainable and progressive solution.