….and Tourism with a Vengeance

I feel I should apologise. What sort of subscription is this that you have to wait months for Scottish fixes during a pandemic? Folk like me should be churning out the inspiration, helping to keep optimism just about breathing in the expectation that better times await, just over the next hill. I have missed chatting about Scotland, and it does feel good to be behind the keyboard again. But the plain concession is I have simply not been on it and a combination of COVID limitations, the uneasy focus on Scotland staycations and significant life change have kept me consumed. Mentally, the pandemic and it’s fallout has had me endlessly and unproductively mulling how best to serve the industry (and Scotland generally) as there’s no question that it’s going to be another very uncomfortable season for tourism. There are problems, and I don’t want to add to them. It’s therefore going to be a year where I let nature and instinct lead me but, for this first blog of 2021, here’s an update from both myself and the industry as we emerge from our lockdown hidey holes.


What have I been up to?

If you’ve been following along on social media, my much-anticipated uproot to the West Highlands was realised in February. Three months later and I surprise myself by saying I feel already at home. Calmer, happier and more grateful. Moving from flat/apartment to house is a huge step and I’ve found the place (wonderful as it is) gobbling up my days quite selfishly. It’s a large, ‘settling-down’ project, and that feels just fine. I’ll never be too distant a stranger from Glasgow, but there’s been a click to this move that I always felt would involve a much greater wrestle with compromise than has proved to be the case.

camusdarach drone
Camusdarach Beach has seen a lot of us this year
castle tioram staycation scotland
Castle Tioram, one of Scotland’s finest, is now my local

I’ve spent a good many nights just watching the sunsets. On the beach or from the hilltops, the still orange, pink and yellow glows on the horizon have never been so…..healing. Sometimes at night I’ll stand, shivering usually, on the house decking and look at the uninterrupted sky, peppered with stars and orchestrally supported by the waves. A cheeky dram may magically materialise. Beauty is that simple.

I’ve also been in the water. The appeal of submersion in the ice cold (regardless of the clarity or beauty of the surroundings) is, I’m aware, a hard sell. But I do recommend it, even if it’s just for a daft splash amid squeals, shrieks and blasphemy. And, needless to say, Harris isn’t complaining too much these days either. Daily walks on empty beaches with the wee guy, the luxury of a garden and getting introduced to the hills seems to agree with him. I’ll be discussing all this Highland living stuff more in next week’s blog, and I’ll be dedicating the majority of my focus this season to my new home region. I intend to walk every inch of these parts in the coming years and, believe me, I’m going to have a lot I want to tell you.

dog scotland sunset
He’s getting used to the need for a strong contemplative sunset stare
dog travel scotland
Beaches or hills?

I’m not in any rush to travel more widely but, as with last year, I’ll carefully consider trips that can be completed safely and responsibly if I think they’ll be of interest to you good people. But I don’t want to travel with the same intensity of times’ past, and I am getting more and more selective. Old git. Promoting things for the sake of it has never held an appeal anyway and it’s a media race that I’m getting increasingly distant from with each passing year. Less promotions, more experiences. I also think the relentless tick-things-off-a-list approach to travel is long gone for us all now and I’m certainly looking forward to a slower pace, and particularly one that speaks more to things we’ve fundamentally been missing.

Work-wise, I’ve also just completed a project as one of the writers of the next Lonely Planet guide for Scotland. I’ve covered Lowland areas for this edition and it’ll be on shelves worldwide from spring next year. For me they’ve always been comfortably the best guidebooks in circulation and were the only brand I felt could give me at least some creative licence without being too dry. My own novel, meanwhile, has been on the backburner but will, I promise, be completed as soon as I find the right headspace. We’re all a bit fuzzy these days, am I right?


The Scotland Staycation Flood

It’s been announced this month that domestic travel can now more or less freely resume. This is terrific news as struggling businesses can potentially shake off the welcome mats and look out the good china. The UK-wide vaccine rollout has been rapid and, while we are not quite ready for international visitors yet, spring has brought with it an overdue relief.

But deprive anyone of something they want – and take for granted – for long enough and you’re going to encounter some issues. Lockdown has been long and frustrating. We’ve hated being stuck behind walls in our shrunken worlds, and we’ve worried about lost time. Resentment is high, willingness to sacrifice low. The floodgates are creaking open, and many of us here are just a wee bit nervous.

The vile scenes of last year when our Highlands & Islands faced the alarming force of brutal, thoughtless over-tourism remain fresh in the memory. There were countless documented instances of ‘staycation’ travellers (the vast majority in 2020 would have been from Britain) misbehaving. I went on about this in some depth in last year’s summary so I’ll not repeat it all but I do desperately hope that the industry’s widespread pleas ahead of this new season have been heard.

Early indications suggest that once again the camping industry is going to thrive, with every second vehicle on our wee Highland roads blazing a campervan-shaped trail, and with instances of wildfires, littering and dodgy parking high. Now, all my experience tells me that camping is absolutely fine and dandy in moderation, as ‘wild’ campers have long been among the best prepared and most considerate of all the travellers out there. But this is not moderation. And “wild camping” is wearing a much less assuring mask these days. There is fear economically too, as hotel bookings are currently looking extremely low and the critical job creation that comes through them still very much on pause. It’s too early to say for restaurants as yet.

wild camping staycation scotland
A glorious pitch when alone, but will that be the case in peak season?

I still can’t personally bring myself to get very excited about the UK staycation market. Domestic travellers from this island have always been an important arm of the industry, but last year was nothing short of depressing. Low spend, high impact is very obviously not what’s needed, especially in a time of recovery.


What Does ‘Good’ Tourism Look Like?

Balance is the key. Everyone will quite rightly tell you that the Highlands & Islands in particular needs (not just wants) tourism. They will also tell you that they dread too much tourism. There is an inexact sweet point in there you see, which is constantly moving and frustratingly impossible to pinpoint. I imagine it’s fairly obvious what I’m hinting at here – visitors that fuel local businesses while leaving no environmental trace of their visit are what’s needed to get us back on our feet and save rural and remote regions from economic collapse. Individual behaviours, not merely traffic volume, make all the difference. Every one of us has a part to play.

From a promotional perspective we want to encourage and inspire folk to visit and have their own experiences, but to carefully consider their impact. The strategy-less over-marketing of the North Coast 500 in the far north is now being widely held as a pin up of what rural regions do not want. The Highlands is not a theme park.

I certainly don’t want to be a contributor to the problem we are likely to face again this year. Tourism is often said as being ‘a force for good’, and I agree. In truth, though, that only works here when hospitality is embraced. When jobs are created and local economies are boosted. I’ve been delighted to see much stronger messaging from VisitScotland and regional partners this year underlining the importance of Leave No Trace and the fragile vulnerability of our wild places to heal from our wounds. Word has got out, and a lot of people will have been listening.

Even still, it’s likely to be bumpy and it could be a case of muddling through until 2022, when the signs are strong that we will see something much closer to normality.


Touching Distance….

My ambivalences and temporary uncertainty aside, I’m looking forward to getting back out there. To working with tourism partners close to home and helping where I can in meaningful ways. We all really miss international visitors and can’t wait to have you back. Hotels, restaurants and attractions will soon be bustling again and our famous hospitality will be back on the menu. That is going to be special.

rhu road arisaig beach scotland staycation
Still, lonely coves are just what the doctor ordered for many of us
castle tioram moidart
Our wild places have long stories to tell

For our staycation visitors this year, there’s much to enjoy close to home. I’ve been writing about and exploring Scotland in depth for almost a decade, and the diversity on offer across these lands is astonishing. Our wild places are as majestic, soulful and simply beautiful as anywhere in the world. They can be your strongest ally as you recover mentally and physically from hard times, and lifelong memories are there for the taking.

Just be gentle. They need us just as much as we need them.


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