Enterprise chief says tourism is 'critical' to Highlands and Islands
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The chief executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise has underlined the "critical" importance of tourism to the region's economy.
Charlotte Wright insisted that lessons had been learned from last summer when there were reports of anti-social behaviour in many parts of the north following an influx of visitors.
She highlighted efforts to promote responsible tourism and pointed out that the development agency had given support to community groups to enhance facilities for holidaymakers.
Ms Wright said: “Tourism is critical to the whole of the Highlands and Islands and it's really important that we get all of that right.
“In view of the lessons learned out of last year, agencies have tried to respond to this so partners in VisitScotland and others are promoting responsible tourism. Agencies including Highland Council are employing more rangers, so that they are out and about particularly in the hot-spots to encourage people how to behave.
“We provided support to community groups to enhance some of the facilities available, so that things are managed responsibly and it also produces a bit of income back to community groups.
“I think that helped change the approach. If communities can see they can take control and help manage that situation, and actually gain something back from it, that is helpful.
“We need tourism to happen in the Highlands and Islands. So much of our economy does depend on it that getting our response right, and supporting our businesses and communities to provide the right response, is essential."
Ms Wright was speaking after she and other senior figures from HIE took part in a board engagement session with businesses, community groups and representative bodies from Caithness and Sutherland to see how they have adapted over the past year and more.
She stressed that no-one would wish to see a repeat of some of the problems reported in 2020, such as dirty camping, outdoor toileting, littering and inconsiderate parking.
“Let's hope people have learned, because we did see some bad behaviour last year. We absolutely do not want to see any repeat of that," she said.
“Across the agencies responsible there has been a lot more collaboration to get ahead of the challenges for this year.”
Ms Wright noted that tourist trade appeared to be “a little bit patchy” in the run-up to summer.
She said: “I think people are seeing a lot of campervans going around the North Coast 500, so that is definitely happening, but not all operators are reporting that they are 100 per cent busy yet. So I think we have yet to see how things play out with foreign and other travel.
“We need to make the best of this opportunity because our tourism businesses have had a terrible 15 months now and they have still got a long way to go in recovering from that.”
HIE area manager Eann Sinclair noted that community trusts in some areas are playing their part by improving provision for visitors.
“It has been good in Caithness but it has been particularly evident in Sutherland that those anchor organisations that we speak about investing in are actually the same organisations that have a tourism dimension to their work – they tend to be small development trusts," Mr Sinclair said. "As we go into the recovery phase, I can already see their work on the ground – whether that is putting in place campervan facilities on the west coast or whether it's providing small accommodation pods, things like that. So it is beginning to work.
“We also invested in a three-year programme with Venture North as a destination management organisation which is an attempt to co-ordinate some of that on-the-ground effort.”
HIE chairman Alistair Dodds spoke of the importance of a partnership approach.
“It is quite important to emphasise that we have been working with others," he said. "We met with Highland Council and it wasn't about just making a new plan – it was actually making resources available.
“We put in a million and a half in projects across the Highlands and Islands, and Highland Council has also put up money – not just revenue funding for rangers but also for capital projects.
“I think it's that kind of working together rather than just talking about things that has made a difference."
In April, Highland Council’s tourism committee approved a visitor management plan for 2021 aimed at helping communities and the public during the summer months. Measures include seasonal access ranger posts at some of the most-visited sites to engage with visitors and encourage responsible behaviour.
Ms Wright announced recently that she is to step down from her role in the summer for personal reasons after leading the development agency for the past five years. She has had a 24-year career with HIE.