North Coast 500 plans 'road to recovery' as tourist influx due

Tourism leaders, businesses and police are working on a plan to manage the influx of tourists expected to the North Coast 500 driving route next year.

NC500, the business group that promotes the driving route through the north and west Highlands, said it was planning for the expected re-emergence of tourism from early 2021.

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Research has found that three quarters of those who had cancelled plans to drive part of the North Coast 500 this year hoped to join the route in 2021, with a new trend in ‘home-grown’ tourists drawn to the north also identified.

The Bealach na Ba road to Applecross in Wester Ross on the North Coast 500 driving route. PIC: geograph.org/Stuart Wilder.

A spokesman said practical measures were needed to balance public safety and economic recovery in the North Highlands, including further investment in infrastructure. It is understood that more stops for motor homes may be built on the route, which spans Inverness-shire, Black Isle, Easter Ross, Caithness and Sutherland and Wester Ross.

Craig Mills, head of operations at North Coast 500 Ltd, said: “It’s vitally important that we continue to work with our business partners and key stakeholders across the North Highlands to help deliver a balance between public safety and economic recovery in the region in the short and longer term.

“As part of this process, we’re continuing to follow the advice and guidance issued by the Scottish Government during the pandemic. We will only encourage people to travel from different parts of Scotland when it is safe to do so.

“Our recent NC500 visitor survey shows that a significant number of visitors are already rescheduling their plans to visit the NC500 into 2021 and beyond. This really is a positive sign for the re-emergence of the tourism industry in the North Highlands. We look forward to welcoming back visitors from all parts of Scotland and the rest of the UK when the go-ahead is given by the Scottish Government.”

The NC500 marks its fifth anniversary this year, with research showing that it boosted the north Highland economy by £22.89 million in 2018 and created around 179 full-time jobs.

Research is now underway to assess the economic damage to the tourist route caused by the coronavirus health crisis.

This year, tourists were urged to stay away in some cases given the concerns of communities about visitors spreading the virus into rural populations. Signs appeared in some villages telling visitors to ‘go home’, with some businesses reporting the route ‘falling silent’ over the spring months.

Chris Taylor, VisitScotland regional leadership director, said: “Due to Covid-19, there is evidence that a new, home-grown audience is discovering and enjoying Scotland’s more remote wild areas and locations, such as the NC500, which is fantastic.

“It is imperative that we get the balance right between keeping people – both visitors and members of local communities – safe, but also supporting the scores of amazing tourism businesses that are so crucial in making the North Highlands a must-visit, must-return destination.

“Tourism is a force for good and if managed responsibly, sustains communities in every corner of Scotland, creates jobs, tackles depopulation and improves the wellbeing of everyone who experiences it.”

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