….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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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It is so good to see your e-mail message this morning in Scottsdale, Arizona. have missed them. Love to hear how you and Harris are spending your time. Please continue to write about your new home and community. And please keep the photos coming…of the countryside, your new home, of yourself and of Harris.
Thanks David and hope things are improving over there. We will do, looking forward to delving deeper into the remote places very soon and sharing plenty of Highland stories!
Congratulations on your move. My Scottish husband and I are trying to move home to Scotland. The pandemic interrupted our plans but we hope to get back on track now and be ready to relocate by this time next year. I look forward to reading more of your adventures.
Tough one Fiona, sympathies for the delay and disruption there. It will be waiting for you and with a much broader smile than we’ve seen in the last 18 months I’m sure!
Indeed it will be tricky to see who behaves well or with no thought for others. However, the challenge is why we should assume that visitors are always the cause of the problems. Fly tipping is now a lucrative criminal enterprise spreading across countries from Scotland to Turkey. Assumptions are fuelling much of the almost hysterical on line postings. Is a campervan a visitor ? or part of a growing trend to down size and live life as a mobile worker? With official site charges growing i can see no end to the casual overnight stopper and if they are good at disposing of waste etc why should we say its wrong?
Very much so Gary, all down to individual behaviours and common sense must step up. I can’t imagine anyone having issues with those that leave their travel trails as they found them.
So good to hear from you via email. Looking forward to hearing about your new home and area. The pics are absolutely breathtaking and peaceful. I live in Atlanta and is just too noisy for me these days. Even though I have never been to Scotland, it’s in my bones, possible many other life times. I will get there soon. Enjoy,
Thanks Judy and yes looking forward to trying to capture Highland living in words! I’ve always been a city boy but felt the time was right for a change – when it’s right it’s right. Hope things are stabilising in Atlanta and that we can welcome you over soon!
Lovely thoughtful post. Until the pandemic we visited Scotland every year since 2015. Missing Raasay and Skye in particular. We will be back when safe . Until then your posts keep me going. Thanks so much..
Must have left a big void Dee, I hope things are calming where you are. I see Skye just over the water every day and do finally plan to get over at least a couple of times this year so I’ll try and provide a temporary fix for you!
We’re so happy to see your blog again! My wife (US citizens)and I have been visiting every other year by renting cottages for two weeks in May and road tripping it daily. We are planning another but have no idea when it will be allowed even though we are seniors and have ” had our shots”! On our last trip we stayed a week on Loch Lochy and the second week on a horse farm in Linlithgow. There was so much to see around Stirling, Fallkirk, and Bathgate that we never got to Edinburgh! Maybe next trip. We love your blogs and hope to visit again soon. Keep up the good work and enjoy your highland home!
Hi Cameron, glad to be back! Yes it’s been a very stop-start 18 months but I get the feeling that US travellers will be able to return later this year, certainly 2022. European countries are starting to open up for tourism again and, while vaccine IDs of some form are possible, it feels a lot closer than it did a few months ago. Certainly hope you can make it back soon to explore more!
Great to read your blog again Neil and what a great lifestyle you now have on Harris, such a magnificent setting to enjoy life in, raw, untamed, unspoilt beauty where nature serves up the best story you could ever read (other than yours of course but you do well to include it !).
The sunsets and sunrises here in Darwin are also spectacular but I miss being able to get into the water (300,000 salties put you off!) and have very fond memories of the clarity and temperature of the water in Scotland and the fun of not being able to catch your breath when you first jump in !
Looking forward to reading the lonely planet guide on Scotland – also the only one that I put any faith in as the writers may actually have been to the places they write about, and your book when you get in the space.
Ohhhh, the water. Yes just slightly different temperatures I think, fair play to you for giving it a go up here! I hear Darwin, the first thing I think is crocodiles, so 30,000 of them will do it for me. I’ll be at the bar! Thanks for continuing to follow along and hope Oz is doing well.
thanks for being back in my inbox! what a great move you have made. I look forward to more in the near future, we are so looking forward to getting back to the Outer Hebrides(will have to be 2022 though!).
Let’s hope that the landscape is not trampled and disrespected this year, and that folks will be better educated about their need to leave no trace.
Thank you Morag and yes, going to be great to share west coast stories as a local from now on. The Outer Hebrides’ ferries will be struggling to stay afloat this year by the sounds of things so maybe just as well to wait, it’ll be worth it. And yes, let’s hope that the messaging has got through and last year was a one-off. Hope things are looking bright at your end!
a slow start to spring here in the Canadian Rockies, but everything is greening up nicely, the bears are out and the elk are calving! We are hopeful that the messes that uneducated tourists left here last year will be less this year, but so far the crowds that have been asked to stay away haven’t quite figured it out yet. It will be another interesting summer for us! Stay well, keep safe, and keep writing!
Welcome back, Neil … your ‘musings’ are always such a pleasure to this displaced wee Scottish laddie in America’s Dairyland. Next year will be the year I bring over my 4 kids and 9 grandkids for a personalized tour of the homeland, might even include some sons- and daughters-in-law to help boost tourism in rural areas. Very envious of your relocation surroundings … a wee jaunt to Applecross and Gairloch is so very much overdue. Stay safe and keep penning your greatly appreciated ‘works’ of – dare I say it? – literary genius! Cheers for now.
Bring the Clan! Sutherland is just glorious so it’ll be worth it. Had a top drawer seafood lunch at the Applecross Inn last year, good as ever. I’ll be sure to keep the west coast firmly on your radar!
Finally a new “Travelwithakilt-special” again!
I had it all so carefully planned. Walking (or ambling along) the many paths of Southern Scotland again in May 2020. But then….there was Covid and that spoiled it all! And just when you think it’s all over…..there comes the second wave…..and it’s another killer! On top of that Margreet, my wife of 32 wonderful years and the love of my life, passed away last March 7th. She’d been battling heart failure for many, many years and as you may imagine I’m still in a frozen state of shock. I’m very gratefull though that in 2018 (that fantastic un-scottish summer!) I had the chance to show her what Scotland was all about and make her see and feel why Scotland keeps calling me back time and again. The trip was superb and she did see the light! With summer 2021 just around the corner (actually in The Netherlands we’ve hadn’t had any real spring yet!) I’m hopeful that restrictions for overseas visitors will change very soon as this house gets very still, empty and….horribly different. As I’ve been addicted to Scotland for a very long time I would very much like to indulge as soon as possible. I need a fix! Withdrawal symptoms are just around the corner. Just hate cold turkey!
I’m so very sorry to hear about your loss Dirk. Can’t imagine the void that would leave. But I am very glad that you shared some wonderful memories in Scotland and that it has a special place for you both. It’s a land with an old soul that is very good at listening and understanding so I hope you can make it back very soon for a good chat, I’m sure it’ll help, and we’ll all be delighted to welcome such passionate visitors back. Stay safe down there for now.
I’m so jealous of your new location! It was great to hear from you again. I don’t camp, but I rely on local B&Bs as well as local shops to fuel my love for Scotland, especially the Highlands. I appreciate your concern for the natural places in Scotland.
Thanks Deb. Think most in the industry are feeling the responsibility for sustainability more than ever these days and when very obvious problems arise, we have to do what we can. Hope you can make it back up to the Highlands soon!
Lovely to see a new blog post from you, Neil! I think the last year has been a bit muddled for everyone, and I for one wasn’t expecting anyone I follow to keep cranking out content. We’ve all just been trying to make it through! I’m looking forward to visiting Scotland again in 2022. Perhaps I’ll buy a new travel guide… 🙂
Kind regards to you and yours!
Will be great to have you back and good idea Rachel, I particularly recommend the Glasgow chapter 😉
I planned it all last year and had to cancel, Glasgow is definitely in!!
You’ll get a warm welcome I’ve no doubt at all!
As my wife’s good family (from Skye, Lewes and Harris) might say, “Hold Fast”!
The road ahead will be a better one and you’re now living in the finest landscape in Europe! (Nearly as inspiring as here in Canada! ;o) )
I’m picturing a quaking battle line holding their ground in the face of a cavalry charge! But thanks Robert, we’ll make it work taking the benefits when we can get them and there’s definitely better times coming soon. Hope all is well in lovely Canada, one of the places I’m desperate to see one day!
Sounds idyllic and will be great for body and mind. Great to be able to read another fantastic blog from you.
Thanks Andy, I’ll hopefully have some good Highland ones coming up over the summer!
fàilte uair sam bith!