Responsible tourism in Scotland

When you take a vacation in Scotland, you are benefiting from one of the most accessible, wild open spaces in the Europe. Traditionally, it has always been considered important and right that every person should have access to countryside in Scotland. This right is now enshrined in law, which basically says that as long as you act responsibly, you can walk, cycle, canoe and horse ride in all open land or waters. We love a country that puts responsible tourism in its statutes, and encourage all visitors to take extra time to read ways in which you can maintain that responsibility on your wandering. One issue that the statues may need to address, however, is overtourism in certain parts of the country, where freedom to roam has been taken to a whole other level.

Overtourism hotspots

Responsible Travel’s founder and CEO, Justin Francis, in Scotland’s Sunday Herald:
“Visit Scotland should cease marketing any destination that’s exhibiting signs of overtourism with immediate effect. On Visit Scotland's Skye page there is no information about how busy it is in peak season, how to avoid the crowds, or any tips about how to minimise impacts on local residents. This is not how a responsible tourist board should be communicating to visitors.”

Although overtourism in cities like Venice and Barcelona has been regularly hitting the headlines, Scotland also has some serious issues when it comes to Caledonian crowds. One of the worst hit areas is the Isle of Skye, where growing giant cruise ship numbers are most definitely rocking the boat. With sometimes two or three cruise ships in a weekend, carrying up to 2,000 passengers, this island with a population of just over 10,000 people is far from bonny in certain parts.

It is important to point out, however, that Skye is a big island and you can travel to many parts of it without being affected by mass tourism. This is great for responsible tourists who travel with companies that take them off the beaten track or on small ship cruises to remote coves. However, this is not so great for local people who can’t access their homes because of coach traffic jams on tiny roads, or who have to put ‘no entry’ signs on their gates to stop tourists barging through their gardens. It’s also not ideal for tourists who have seen images of quaint ports on travel websites, only to be greeted by a deluge of disembarking daytrippers.

What you can do
It is easy to plan a trip to Scotland that stays clear of the large crowds, taking a railway vacation or a small ship cruise to many of the other islands, for example. Do also read our Overtourism tips for travelers, for more ideas on how to avoid the crush.

If you are in the hotspots and feel that tourism is being mismanaged, don’t hesitate to take photos and share them on social media, including #Scotland or #VisitScotland as hashtags. When travelers start complaining about their vacations being spoiled by overtourism, tourist boards start to listen. Sadly, they are very slow to listen when local people shout out about it, so – join their cause.

Oh deer

There are various issues when it comes to deer. The fundamental conflict is between those who are managing estates and deer herds for conservation reasons, and those who do so for sporting reasons. Shooting weekends and all that. The latter want to keep up the number of deer so that they can maximize the number of people coming to shoot, which includes feeding them in winter to keep the wild herds thriving because there isn’t enough forage in the hills. At the same time, just a few miles away, an estate manager is minimizing the number of deer for conservation reasons, to let the natural habitats come through which support other wildlife. It will take some time and reeducation to show the sporting tourism sector, which is very important to Scottish tourism, that it is possible to gain a happy natural balance, and reach mutual agreements when it comes to deer management plans. But at the moment, successful cooperation on this front is rare and there are no statutory requirements to produce sustainable deer management plans at present.

One way of showing that natural management procedures work best is by allowing other forms of tourism to thrive. For example shooting with cameras instead and diversifying into other forms of tourism, such as photography and wildlife watching. If hunting tourism is your thing, you need to inquire about their conservation policies as some do so purely for conservation reasons, such as the Glenfeshie and Corrour Estates, but they are few and far between. But awareness is growing, slowly but surely.

Another vital issue for tourists who keep their shooting to that of a photographic nature, is to take all the necessary precautions on the hills during stalking season, from 1st July to 20th October, with a hind season until 15 February. The Heading for the Scottish Hills website is invaluable for keeping you up to date on what the various estates are doing and when with detailed maps and regularly updated information. This is a time when cooperation between hikers and stalkers is vital. Land managers will give all the information you require, but often at short notice, so always inform yourself before walking during this period. And stick to three other rules: read and adhere to any warning signs to follow a different path; do not cross land where stalking is taking place and avoid wild camping where stalking is planned for the next day.
Andrew Bateman, Director of one of our suppliers, Scot Mountain Vacations:
"We have a big issue with too many deer preventing the natural regeneration of our native forests and woodlands in Scotland – eat venison! You will be doing the environment a big favour!"

Charity climbs

Charity climbs have long been a contributor to localised overtourism in Scotland. From overnight climbs to conquering the Three Peaks in a heartbeat, the slopes of Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, get quite a bashing. What is unknown to many is that this is not National Park, and does not have the management structure to oversee these events which bring people in their thousands. Nor is there ready funding available when paths are trampled and destroyed. Even though the lower half of Ben Nevis is owned by the multinational Rio Tinto Alcan, which runs a hydro-powered aluminium smelter from the mountain’s rainwater, the upper half is owned by the John Muir Trust, the world renowned wild land conservation charity. It is rare for an event organizer to have an environmental policy or, indeed, to contribute towards the maintenance of the land they are running all over. There is an argument that they bring tourism money to the area, but many climbers swoop in and back out again in 24 hours, so this is not always the case.

The Institute of Fundraising has created a Code of Practice for such events, which give excellent guidelines regarding what your event organiser should and should not be doing. Such as avoiding weekends, staggering start times, and informing all land owners. But as Ben Nevis is managed by volunteers, this is hard to police.
John Hutchison, Chairman John Muir Trust, the conservation charity which owns the summit of Ben Nevis: “I’ve seen organised parties of a thousand people on the Ben in one day. Access to the Ben should always be free and while it is great that these charities make money out of Ben Nevis, it is really disappointing that nothing comes back to repair the paths, as it is charities like ours and the National Trust for Scotland that have to finance these. So, we would hope that over time we can change hearts and minds about the ways in which these events are approached. It’s about appealing to the social conscience, I suppose.“
What you can do
Support and donate to local charities such as the world renowned John Muir Trust, one of the greatest lobbyists for the protection of wild spaces, as well as being owners of the summit of Ben Nevis. They run various campaigns but at the moment they are focused on a Path Maintenance Appeal.

Responsible tourism tips

Whale and dolphin watching is possible in Scotland, and spectacular it is too. There are now strict guidelines in place when it comes to cetaceans, so please look at our respective whale and dolphin watching vacation guidelines for more detailed information on this subject. Cycling is popular and welcomed in Scotland but please do so responsibly. If you are on towpaths, such as the Caledonian Canal, remember there are many other users, including hikers and canoeists. So slow your pace and share the space. On the mountain biking tracks,respect signage, don’t skid as it wrecks the paths, be aware of other trail users and if in doubt, slow down. Read Do the Ride Thing on more tips for responsible mountain bike riding. Be a responsible dog owner, and always put it on a lead near farm animals. During the bird breeding season (usually April to July), keep it on a short lead in areas such as moorland, forests, grassland , loch and riversides. If you are wildlife watching with an expert guide, they will know all the codes of Practice that Scotland has put in place, One of the most important is “If you approach wildlife, do so slowly and cautiously. Make sure that your movements are steady and predictable and do not approach directly. Do not chase them or feed them. Let them do what they do best. Be wild. Water lovers, check out the Scottish Marine Code. Be safe in the mountains. Always check the conditions, take maps and compass, a safety kit, proper clothing and tell someone where you are going. If there is a sign of a storm, especially with lightening, find the lowest ground possible to retreat to. Then crouch on top of insulating material such as rucksacks and sleeping mats. One of the most common causes for rescue on the Scottish hills is hypothermia usually brought about by exhaustion and injury. So make sure you have enough food and water, the right layers and a shelter. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland is a font of knowledge on all things safety. If you are taking on extreme sports such as rock climbing, winter walking, go with a qualified expert when you can. Wind turbines are an issue in Scotland. They upset a lot of people and you will hear them being talked about by many locals. We are talking big multinational-owned wind farms erected in some of the wildest places in Scotland, not individual ones. This is a watch-this-space situation at the moment, with Scottish Natural Heritage having recently mapped the important ‘wild places’ in Scotland and acting to have these incorporated these into any planning decisions in future.
John Hutchison, Chairman of John Muir Trust: "From various polls, particularly in the Highlands and Islands, people clearly feel enough is enough. The John Muir Trust is most definitely not an anti-wind turbine organization. We are a pro wild land organization and our main concern is where they are being sited. Our worry is the intrusion on wild land. And the fact that international speculators and huge energy companies can profit from our landscape."
Be safe on the water. Always check the forecasts, and buoyancy aids are a must. Ensure they are tightened on children, who can slip out of them easily. And if you are swimming in the lochs, always wear a bright hat so you can be seen, try and swim with someone else and keep within your capabilities. If possible, swim with a canoeist or kayaker alongside. Blue green algae can be a problem during the warmer months so adhere to any warning signs. Drive carefully on Scottish roads. Local people drive quite speedily as they know the roads well, but don’t be tempted to speed up. Aggressive motorcycle riding can be a major problem on some of Scotland's rural roads, but just keep a gentle pace and do not feel hassled by them. When there is snow, police sometimes close the road with snow gates. So, always check the weather forecast.
Sally Dowden, our supplier at Speyside Wildlife: "We have great access legislation in Scotland and an ancient tradition of open countryside. So we are not like large tracts of Europe where everything is behind high fences and it is all private land and you can’t get into it."
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Krisjanis Mezulis] [Oh deer: Paul Wilkinson] [Charity climbs: Derek Hatfield] [Wind turbines: Vincent van Zeijst] [Open countryside: lacegna]