Staff Blog: Lingering landscapes
Kevin Lelland, head of development and communications, ponders the role of slow tourism in and around the Trust's Sandwood property
The community of Kinlochbervie is between a rock and a hard place. Visitor numbers are increasing year on year. Meanwhile local authority services and related infrastructure investment is being reduced or cancelled as austerity bites. Local people are being increasingly asked to take responsibility for and to cope with the knock-on effects.
Dealing with the squeeze is a hot topic in the area. “It’s not the quantity of visitors we want to go up, it’s the quality of the visits,” says local businessman Tim at a drop-in session organised by the Trust in the village hall.
Slow tourism, where attention is focussed on encouraging visitors to stay longer while contributing to the preservation of a destination, is a new term being coined as a solution. The communities under pressure are trying to figure out how they take the concept and make it practical and real.
“We want people to visit,” says Paula, who lives and works in the local area, “but visitors are creating more litter than ever, while it’s become harder to get bins where we need them.”
She’s one of several people who have formed a local community campaign group to take matters into their own hands. There is agreement that a lack of information for visitors is not helping, compounded by the reduction in basic local amenities. There is also consensus that the types of visitor are changing – one example given is that an increasing number of people are “racing the NC500” visiting scenic spots only long enough to capture ‘a selfie’ picture for social media.
There's also agreement that campervan users, another growing visitor group, need additional support via an investment in facilities in the area. According to motorhomeinsurance.org.uk, motorhome ownership is rising by 23 per cent each year. The traditional image of motorhomes being owned by retired couples is also fading, with 18 per cent now being sold to young families. The rising cost of home ownership and more people choosing to holiday in the UK are contributing factors to their popularity.
The local campaign group has funded new signs in an attempt to mitigate some of the impacts and encourage more people to protect the landscape. The Trust is contributing by giving time and resource to use some of the signs to way point a coastal path that's part of an existing key path network route - the hope is that this could persuade some to stay an extra day. The Trust will produce information about the important habitat on the route: there are more than 200 wild flower species in the machair.
The approach is in response to feedback. Recent research by the Trust highlighted that the significant majority of local business owners believe Sandwood is an important local asset – listing community, economic and environmental benefits highest, with a smaller majority also agreeing that it’s an important local asset for education and heritage. Almost half who took part also said they could do with more information about Sandwood to give to their customers.
It makes sense to support people's experience of wildness while addressing local community needs. It is of course a delicate balancing act. There are also those in the area who fear that protecting wildness is ultimately detrimental to people’s livelihoods and or that as a land owner the Trust isn’t going far enough to step-in and take on services that are disappearing.
One service that welcomes people into this landscape has already been hit. The Trust, a member of the Scottish Countryside Rangers Association, was one of a number of organisations that protested to the proposed closure of the Highland Council ranger service in 2017. In the end it was saved, but now operates at a reduced capacity.
Supporting local communities in or near wild places clearly requires investment as well as a commitment to identify common goals, aspirations and values. The Trust continues to do this within its means. This year it’s investing a six figure sum in Sutherland, thanks largely to monies from a Big Lottery Coastal Communities Fund. A project is creating additional employment in the area, updating the facilities at the Blairmore car park and further maintaining the path into Sandwood Bay. We’re also improving interpretation, working with local high schools to deliver the John Muir Award and are committed to running more guided walks, training and engagement with visitors and locals alike.
All of these things can encourage slow tourism and in doing so tie back to core Trust principles: encouraging people to be active conservationists, inspired by and connected to natural landscapes. An increasingly complex set of social, political, economic and historical circumstances is once again shining a spotlight on the importance of continuing to work together with local communities to highlight the benefits of wildness for both people and place.
Photo credits: Kevin Lelland. Main image: Sutherland landscape. Second image: the coastal walk between Oldshoremore and Sheigra.