Field Notes: Could a tourist tax help wild land?

Campaigns Co-ordinator Mel Nicoll considers if a tourist tax for Scotland could be the answer to protecting and enhancing wild places

Cirles in the sand loch sandwood detail

There's an important consultation underway right now as the Scottish Government seeks views on whether to introduce a tourist tax (or, to give it its proper name, “transient visitor levy”). Many people will be familiar with this from visits abroad – typically a small fee is added to the cost of your overnight accommodation and which can then be used to invest in tourist facilities and projects to ensure visitors have a positive experience as well as to reduce the impacts that tourists can have on an area.

A possible tourist tax is controversial to some, while others are arguing that it is needed to tackle the increasing impact that tourism is having in some parts of the Highlands and islands of Scotland – both on the environment and local communities. We’re currently considering our response to the consultation – read our initial thoughts here and find out how you can add your voice. It’s a Scottish Government consultation but that doesn’t preclude people with an interest in this issue or valuable experience/feedback from responding from further afield!

The pressures that some areas are experiencing from tourism have been widely discussed in the media over the last couple of years – cars and camper vans clogging up roads, passing and parking places, the build up of litter where there are inadequate litter bins and/or collections and, sadly, human waste are just some examples. Some people are racing around “must see” scenic spots for just long enough to capture a selfie for social media, before rushing onto the next place on their list. Some wild and formerly quiet places can feel less wild and special as a result.

We have direct experience of visitor pressure at some of our properties – for example, on Skye where we are responsible for a number of tourist “hot spots” and gateways into the Cuillin, while our property at Sandwood Bay (pictured at the top) has seen increasing numbers of people visiting due to the popularity of the North Coast 500 marketing campaign and Sandwood being listed as one of the world’s top beaches.

Encouraging people to experience the benefits of wild places is a key aspect of our work.  We aim to inspire people from all walks of life to connect with nature across a whole spectrum from our towns and cities to our wildest landscapes – there are physical, psychological and educational benefits in doing so and hopefully we increase the likelihood they will come to value wild places and will want to play their part in protecting, rewilding and repairing them. 

We have a responsibility of course as a land owner and manager to manage the impacts of visitors. We provide infrastructure and services such as car parks, toilets, footpaths and interpretation at our properties. We have recently invested in new composting toilets and extra car parking space at the foot of popular Skye mountain Bla Bheinn, while at Sandwood Bay we have refurbished the toilet block, resurfaced the car park, commissioned and installed new interpretation and repaired the main track to the beach. Across our properties generally, we continually invest substantial sums of money in footpath repairs.

As a result of our experience and in response to feedback and consultation with local communities, as well as Trust members and supporters, we have recently developed a visitor management strategy. The strategy recognises the pressure that increasing visitor numbers are having on some very special wild places and sets out the steps we will take as land owner and manager to play our part in improving the situation. The strategy also sets out how we aim to use our experience and interest in wild places more widely to highlight the impacts from visitor pressures on wild land beyond that in our direct care.

One way we can do this is to talk to politicians. We recently set up a meeting with Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop about the need to ensure the benefits of tourism are maintained while reducing the negative impacts on local communities and the natural environment. In advance of the meeting we consulted with local communities around Trust properties to gather and feedback their experience and suggestions. 

The Trust’s Mike Daniels, Head of Land, who attended the meeting is clear that co-ordinated action is needed. He said: “Tourism brings financial benefits to both the local and national economy but overtourism is creating challenges for local communities and the natural environment. It is important that the economic benefits from visitors – and any possible tourist tax – is used to support investment in important infrastructure and services such as footpaths and ranger services that can mitigate against any adverse impacts. 

"Thinking beyond this, could funds also be used to deliver ambitious programmes of landscape-scale, ecological enhancement with all the myriad benefits they can bring for the environment, wildlife, communities and visitors alike?"

Dr Laura Hamlet, project officer for SHAPE – a three year project to enable authorities, businesses and communities to develop innovative ecotourism initiatives which preserve local assets and create economic value from them - also attended the meeting, representing the Wester Ross Biosphere and NW Highlands Geopark. Laura said:-

“We’ve gathered a significant amount of evidence on the state of tourism and tourism planning in the Highlands. Communities and businesses believe tourism can be sustainable - but only if planned for and resourced. Best practice in destination management planning indicates a strong need for community consultation and community led planning so that resources are maximised through match funding initiatives and spent in areas of most need. Community development trusts and companies, and frameworks such as the UNESCO Biosphere and Global Geopark, play a vital role in this respect.”

The Scottish Government’s consultation is a timely opportunity to consider what role a tourist tax might play in addressing both environmental and community impacts from tourist pressures. It’s a chance for us, and other interested parties, to emphasise the need for carefully-planned investment in infrastructure and services to protect and enhance the natural environment and, as such, the need for any tourist tax to be very much part of a wider Scotland strategy. 

Overall, it’s a great opportunity to highlight the huge significance of Scotland’s wild places to Scotland’s economy but, most importantly, to make the case for the development of what could become an internationally-renowned approach to the destination management of wild places - one that balances community, environmental and economic impacts and benefits.

Find out more about the consultation, the points we expect to make in our response and how you can add your voice here.

The consultation closes on 2 December 2019.

Image credit: Kevin Lelland. Trust managed Sandwood Bay is attracting more and more visitors.