by Hugh Morris, The Telegraph, April 9, 2019
The Highlands are at risk of turning into Disneyland, local councillors have warned, with the soaring popularity of the North Coast 500 threatens to overwhelm some of the most remote corners of Scotland.
The 516-mile road route was launched in 2015 with the intention of boosting tourism in the region, but critics say an influx of visitors has led to dangerous driving, traffic jams and irritated residents.
Ahead of a busy spring and summer, Highland councillor Kirsteen Currie told the Scotsman: “No one wants to talk about the problems associated with the North Coast 500. It is like we have set up a Disneyland where people can come and look at us in our nice wee rural lives, as they whizz by in their camper can or sports car.
“But this is real life and it can be very frustrating. It is not sustainable.”
Cllr Currie said she is told stories by her constituents of NHS drivers being delayed by congestion on previously deserted roads. “Or there’s police officers who have to give up other work to come and help a motorhome reverse,” she added.
The North Coast 500, sold as Scotland’s answer to America’s famous Route 66 and sponsored by luxury car manufacturer Aston Martin, starts in Inverness before skirting much of north-eastern Scotland, taking in John o’ Groats, Sutherland and Wester Ross. The initiative has been hailed as a success, helping bring six million annual visitors to the region.
But there are concerns that the behaviour of some travellers is of detriment to the area. Sharon Anslow set up a Keep Left campaign after being injured in a crash with a tourist’s car driving on the wrong side of the road in Skye in December last year.
She said she was contacted by a number of people after the accident telling of similar experiences, and is now calling for the introduction of clearer road markings, signs at junctions and “keep left” stickers to be placed in rental vehicles.
Sergeant Bruce Crawford, of Police Scotland, which is backing the campaign, told the BBC drivers should not attempt to enjoy the scenery while driving. “Quite often these collisions are caused by inattention, people who are probably spending time looking at the scenery as opposed to paying attention to the road,” he said.
One of the criticisms aimed at the North Coast 500 is that travellers are now seeing the vast Highlands region as a route to be ticked off in as little time as possible.
“People used to come and stay for three or four nights,” said Cllr Currie. “People now come for one night as they try to race around the area, the size of a small European country, in two days.”
Last year, Highland councillor Bill Lobban told Scottish Parliament’s Tourism Committee that a tourist tax on visitors should be introduced to improve infrastructure along the route and mitigate the impact of an influx of holidaymakers.
“The increase in tourist numbers to the Highlands has been very, very welcome,” he told Telegraph Travel. “It is, after all, our main and in some areas only industry.”
“However, it does put massive strain on our infrastructure - roads, toilets, car parks and the like - and in these days of ever-decreasing funding from central government we have to make sure that we make the visit for our tourists as pleasant as possible. Allowing our infrastructure to deteriorate through lack of investment is not an option.
“I simply refuse to accept that a small charge of £1 per night will drive visitors away and I welcome any opportunity to get together with the industry and local residents to discuss a way forward.”
Speed limits on certain stretches of the route and handing out “car litter bags” to motorists are two suggestions made in the past to help manage tourists in the area.
Despite its detractors, the North Coast 500 has certainly achieved its aims, bring more people, and money, to the Highlands.
Councillor Raymond Bremner, who lives on the east coast at Thrumster, told the Scotsman: “It’s been a welcome boost and one that I can see will continue to appeal to greater numbers of visitors nationally and internationally as visitors tell others about their experience.”
Chris Taylor, regional leadership director at VisitScotland, the national tourist board, said the North Coast 500 has been “a huge success for Scotland’s visitor economy, generating millions of pounds in additional spend to surrounding areas”.
“We would always encourage visitors to explore the hidden gems that are off the North Coast 500 as well as driving responsibly along the route and being courteous to other road users,” he said.
“VisitScotland is continuously talking to and listening to stakeholders and is part of the North Coast 500 working group, which is chaired by Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The group’s purpose is to ensure that the route is sustainably managed and adds tourism benefit to everyone.”