Freda Newton: Pull plug on Nessie? No, let's give tourists just what they want

LOCH Ness is one of the most recognised landmarks in the world. As a destination it is synonymous with Scotland in the same way as the Grand Canyon is with the United States and Ayers Rock - Uluru - is to Australia.

Recently the loch has hit the headlines more than once. And not because "Nessie" has chosen to pop up for a Kodak moment, but because the quality of the tourist's experience has been questioned.

The beauty of the water combined with the legend of the monster draws more than 500,000 tourists to the Highlands every year, making the industry a key contributor to the region's economy with a gross annual output of around 735 million. And not all of this spend comes from out with Scotland, we're seeing an increasing number of daytrippers from the central belt.

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Yet when visitors arrive in Inverness, there is little to encourage them to spend time, and more importantly money, experiencing the magic of Loch Ness. There is little signage, and the largest viewpoint on Loch Ness has been closed for over a year few viewpoints along the A82 and very few visitor facilities with a view of the 23-mile body of water. And if people dare decide to visit us in winter there are few hotels, guest houses and village facilities welcoming them with open doors.

Some could be forgiven for thinking we don't want visitors to come to the Highlands.

As an industry we need to work together to deliver an amazing experience. If we do that, people are more likely to return and to tell others it's a trip worth making. Today, those businesses that ignore the influence of Trip Advisor and many other online review sites do so at their peril.

There has been public debate as to whether the image of Nessie - and the proliferation of monster-shaped memorabilia on sale throughout Scotland - cheapens the image of Highland tourism. Some say we should ditch the legendary purple dinosaur from our brand.

What? And get rid of a story that has sold hundreds of thousands of newspapers; resulted in a cartoon franchised all over the world; been the setting of a box office movie and put a region with a population of less than 400,000 on the map throughout the world?

We do not need to ban all mention of Nessie to improve the quality of the Highland tourism offer. We need to realise the potential of what we have and learn from destinations such as Lake Garda and Queenstown in New Zealand.

We need to train our staff to deliver excellent customer service and invest in facilities so that when people drive around the loch they can't help but stop and enjoy what's on offer. We need to stimulate opportunities for new types of tourism service provision, thus creating a reason for people to stay longer in the area. We need to make sure tourists who hop off the bus don't want to jump straight back on.

Recently Jim Mather MSP called on Loch Ness tourism businesses to discuss common goals for the development of tourism around Loch Ness. This is a step in the right direction.

I hope this meeting acts as a catalyst for the many businesses that benefit from Loch Ness to come together.

Freda Newton is managing director of Jacobite Cruises.