Since its inception in 2015, The North Coast 500 – the re-branding of an existing 516-mile loop around the North Highlands – has attracted visitors from all over the world, keen to experience the untamed beauty of this area of Scotland. Originally the brainchild of North Highland Initiative – a non-profit organisation set up by HRH Prince Charles to promote economic growth – the brand is now managed by North Coast 500 Ltd., who have been operating as a private company for the last five years. According to their website, NC 500 boast a social media following of over 100,000, and in 2018, achieved a global reach of 3.3 billion, with research reporting that in 2018, the route had boosted the North Highland economy by over £22 million. Indeed, many local people – myself included – have been generally supportive of the route, appreciating the need for responsible tourism to rural areas (in the past, I have written unpaid articles for tourist organisations including the North Coast 500 and regularly extol the virtues of my home county, Caithness, on this very blog). Concerns about the sustainability of the NC 500 route have been rumbling along for some time, though, with a separate 2018 study from Stirling University highlighting a range of negative impacts on local people, including issues around traffic congestion, lack of community consultation and an increase in visitor numbers leading to reduced quality of life for some respondents. In the background, the stream of glossy Instagram pictures prefaced with the hashtag ‘nc500’ continued unabated.
And then, of course, came 2020, the year of Coronavirus, lockdown, and a worldwide health emergency.
And all of a sudden, it felt like everything had changed.
When the Scottish Government re-opened tourism in mid-July, Caithness, like many other areas in the Scottish Highlands, saw an influx of visitors keen to embrace 2020’s biggest travel trend – the staycation. Yet this year, the hospitality Highlanders are known for was tempered with caution around Covid – when you consider that the Highlands are home to a scattered, ageing population and a fragile healthcare system, such concerns are surely easy to understand. As an example, most expectant Mums where I live are forced to travel 110 miles to give birth, one of the balancing acts of benefits and challenges that rural locations, by their very nature, offer their inhabitants.
Very quickly though, fears over the virus were almost eclipsed by numerous examples of uncontrolled camping and inconsiderate motorhome parking, with a minority of travellers causing anguish through littering, parking up at unsuitable locations and – worst of all perhaps – the unconcealed dumping of human waste.
I should point out, now that I have reached the discussion of – yes, poo – that this article is not a wholesale demonisation of any group of people, whether that be campervanners/campers or any other sector of society. If you look around my other articles you’ll see that we ourselves own a VW campervan, and travel in it responsibility. Anti-social behaviour happens in all areas of humanity – that’s just humanity it seems. My own experience in this area, though, relates to being on a walk near my home with my children and discovering an open plastic bag left at the roadside containing human waste and a pair of soiled underpants. At any time, in the vicinity of residential houses and our local care home, this would be a grim experience. In the time of a global health pandemic it’s a public health liability. And sadly, my experience is not an isolated case.
All across the Highlands, groups on social media are sharing examples of irresponsible behaviour in the hope of highlighting issues to decision-making bodies (a Facebook Group set up to this end for the NC 500 garnered thousands of members within just a few days of being established.) It’s hard to look at social media right now without being led to the conclusion that the entire Scottish Highlands are covered in irresponsibly pitched tents, pieces of toilet roll and mounds of human waste. Of course, this isn’t the full picture, and the vast majority of visitors to our area, as in every other year, are being responsible. Elements of anti-social behaviour also exist at a local level, of course, and the piles of drink cans and plastic bottles I pick up on my daily walks are a harsh reminder that not everyone is behaving as they should. Attitudinal change is needed at a deep rooted level across society, and therin lies the challenge.
While we all wait in hope for that shift then, what can the people of the Highlands – or at least those making decisions for the people of the Highlands – positively do?
Elements of behaviour over the last few weeks have shown a lack of clarity around the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, in terms of both letter and spirit, and particularly amongst people who may not have ‘wild camped’ before (I use this phrase loosely as much of what we have seen here this summer does not fall under the definition of the term as most people would describe it.) Mountaineering Scotland have just launched a fantastic campaign on this – you can read about that here – and it has been positive to see the launch of similar initiatives across various platforms in recent weeks. More understanding, perhaps, on ‘best practice’ elements of wild/roadside camping is important – common sense things such as arriving late and leaving early, showing consideration towards local communities, avoiding busy spots and leaving no trace of your visit are all hallmarks of the respectful traveller. In contrast, doing things like parking up in front of people’s houses, camping on enclosed agricultural land or pitching tents around areas of historical and cultural importance are all ways to make a nuisance of yourself, and ruin the summer for everyone involved.
At a deeper level, there is room, too, I think, for more outdoor education at the earliest stages of life, instilling respect for the outdoors in children from all backgrounds and sectors of society. With resources stretched due to Covid, some of this may fall to community and youth groups – and of course parents – with activities like vegetable-growing, nature walks and outdoor learning given more prominence than they are. There is a responsibility, too, for everyone involved in promoting travel, whether that be tourism operators, campervan rental companies and travel bloggers, to be mindful about the type of information they provide (for example, van rental companies could be awarded some sort of ‘considerate’ status for inducting clients on passing place etiquette, waste disposal and single track road driving). It has been painful this summer to see NC 500 Instagram posts captioned to the effect of just rocking up anywhere, for free, with scant regard for the natural environment. In a culture where likes and shares are virtual currency, perhaps every single one of us posting publicly about travel has a valuable part to play.
INFRASTRUCTURE, INVESTMENT AND OPPORTUNITY
Much of the problem, of course, relates to infrastructure – well before this summer, there was a lack of toilets, bins and information facilities on the North Coast 500 route. Post-lockdown, the situation has inevitably deteriorated, with many campsites either not opening, or not opening toilet facilities when tourism recommenced. A woeful shortage of open public toilets, and a less-than-adequate supply of places to dispose of waste safely have also contributed to the unfortunate scenes the Highlands have been faced with. Still, a lack of personal accountability also features. Whatever the inadequacies of the infrastructure, leaving bags of human waste and underpants at the roadside should never be the go-to for anyone disposing of their poo.
Investment is obviously needed for the future – and yes, in the Covid era, I get that this is challenging. Many people locally, I think, would like to see more investment from the organisations promoting us, as well as Government (I recently heard Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for rural economy and tourism, discuss something called the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund, so perhaps that is something to be explored). There are opportunities too, which could be considered further, such as the much-debated tourist tax, the employment of land wardens, or some approximation of the French ‘aires’ system of low-cost camping/overnight parking areas with basic facilities for toileting and waste disposal. The challenge would be ensuring that such initiatives don’t drive business away from local campsites, while providing some sort of income for local communities. Most realistic people, I think, accept the fact that the North Coast 500 isn’t going anywhere. At the same time, a more symbiotic relationship between visitors and locals might help to smooth over some of the rapidly growing cracks.
Recently, I visited the Badbea Highland Clearance village on the outskirts of Berriedale, where tenant farmers displaced by sheep were once pushed to life on a cliff edge under the rise of a new economic order. It struck me as poignant, looking out onto the NC 500 route, of a new economic order – an order with fast cars and motorhomes replacing sheep. For Highland people, well used to uneasy compromises, the North Coast 500 presents yet another balance of benefits and difficulties. On the one hand, responsible tourism is something rural areas absolutely want and need. Yet the North Highlands existed well before 2015 and the NC 500. Suggestions that the whole region would collapse without it have something of a condescending air. Perhaps the one positive to be taken from the summer of 2020 is a new focus on sustainable tourism and a move towards a model that is tolerable for both visitors and local people. A model that is grounded in the unique beauty of the Highlands and its landscape, and protection of the wildness and isolation that has attracted so many visitors to this awe-inspiring place.
A slower, more gentle approach based on (and marketed towards) respect and responsibility. An approach that listens to the concerns of local communities, and the lessons of the past.
For many people in the North Highlands, the worst possible scenario is that the lessons of 2020 will go unheeded.
For many of us who call this place home, change can’t come soon enough.
well said….the council must take up the reins and act… there are strict rules for landlords to rent out property……rules to protect tenants and landlords….it seems a free for all in the public domain is just being ignored to the detriment of everybody…
Thanks Meg, yes there have certainly been some examples of really challenging behaviour this year. Hopefully now that a light has been shone on this, some sort of improvement action can’t be far away. xx
This is a very well balanced reflection and one I commend you on in terms of making such an obvious effort to balance the positive and negatives of tourism, especially when you, like many of your fellow residents, have justifiable cause to be angry at the behaviour of some visitors. I live close to the Angel of the North and so I am well aware of the problems additional travel, parking and visitors can have on the local environment. One issue we have, which I really don’t understand, are the dog walkers, local and visitors alike, who take the trouble to bag their animal’s waste and then leave in lying on the ground or in the hedgerows rather than putting it in to the bins provided!
I hope the Highlands Council do listen to local concerns and that solutions can be implemented to resolve them without having a detrimental effect for those who visit responsibly. In terms of education, perhaps a return of the old ‘public information’ adverts should be included – I still remember the country code ones and the ‘take your litter home with you’. I suppose there are two sides to this too, in that it will be someone’s job to collect and empty bins, but in remote areas it could be more cost effective if we all took litter back to our own bins.
Instilling a pride and sense of responsibility in an area with young ones is necessary, however in my area the youth and community service is gone, with only a handful of voluntary groups left to take its place, so social etiquette education comes down to families, so really any education programmes need to be cross generational. Certainly raising awareness is key and I do hope that the social media campaigns and your writing reaches the right ears.
Thanks so much for your comment Linda – thoughtful as always! You’re right, anti-social behaviour with littering (and dog bags!) does seem to be widespread across the UK. That’s the huge challenge, isn’t it – making change without diminishing the experience for responsible visitors. And I agree on the old video campaigns. We really need a society-level shift. x
There definitely needs to be something done, it’s not fair on those living in these areas. All people need to do their bit xx
Very true, Susan. Personal responsibility is so key. x
Hi. A well balanced account, I discovered that some of the research about the economic benefits of the route has one of the nc500 company directors as an author.
Hoping that this year is an anomaly and that funding and better behaviour prevail.
Thankyou Pamela. I’m hoping for those things too. 💙
The NC500 is, and is marketed as, a “road trip” and I believe that’s where the problems arise.
If the beauty spots of the area were sold as destinations (in their own right) then we might return towards the sort of visitors, and visitor expectation, that we had until about 3 years ago. We constantly hear complaints of “there’s nothing for my teenagers/kids/family to DO” from those clearly wanting Disneyland, not the wild open spaces, vistas, sea and hills that is “all there is to do”. And remember those who come to a place as destination rather than zooming through to “do the 500” are the ones who spend money as well as time in the area, and bring prosperity.
The NC500 seems to want to rake in cash from charging from its name. Pity it isn’t there, as the original charity was declared to be, for the local community, not whoever now “owns its” bank account.
Yes Stephen, I agree that the marketing of the route as a road trip/driving experience is problematic. It’s true – people slowing down and taking the time to enjoy everything the Highlands have to offer would be much more beneficial for everyone concerned.
Any suggestions how we could effect such a change of emphasis (from road trip to destination)?
Personally I think a shift in emphasis to ‘slow tourism’ would be beneficial. Promoting immersive experiences in local areas, that also tie in with local businesses and encourage visitors to stay a little longer in one place. I’m thinking about things like bespoke guided tours (I once read about a country, I’m afraid I can’t recall which now, that had a ‘hire a local’ scheme where local experts took visitors on area tours, offering a much more authentic experience and the chance to include other local businesses). There is quite a lot online about slow/sustainable tourism, but the will for this would probably have to start with the big tourist organisations and their marketing campaigns. There is also the difficulty of so many informal groups/accounts promoting the NC500 as a road trip/driving route on social media. It’s not be going to easy to turn around, but I do think a new form of messaging would be a worthwhile start.