Money, mountains, and tourism …

Scotland’s Highlands and Islands have earned their place as one of the top must-see destinations in the world in 2019,” a press release from VisitScotland tells me.

They’re quite justifiably having a brag about the Lonely Planet guide’s decision, revealed today, to include the Highlands and Islands among its top 10 ‘Best in Travel’ destinations for 2019.

Me and Suilven

The presser goes on to say that among the ‘unmissable experiences’ in the guide are “climbing a mountain, with the iconic peak of Suilven referenced; savouring seafood at one of the Highlands and islands many fine restaurants and joining a nature watching trip to discover the wealth of wildlife that abounds.”

“Mountain-climbing”, aka hill-walking. is my favourite of those things (savouring seafood, ie stuffing my face with it, is a close second) but while restaurants and guided walks obviously create jobs and income, and walking pulls in tourists to local hotels, shops and eateries, there’s a disconnect between the actual activity and the money it generates.

Suilven itself is a really good example of this. £200k has just been spent on renewing the main path up this splendid inselberg (look it up!) and it is hugely popular. The money came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, European Outdoor Conservation Association, John Muir Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and Scottish    Mountaineering Trust.

This has prevented worsening erosion and will improve the experience for walkers – it was a proper bog to cross to get to the foot of the hill proper, and the steep bit was a loose stone-fall hazard.

The fact that the cash had to come from voluntary donations is because the group that owns Suilven can’t make a bean out of it, even though it is a community organisation whose sole purpose is to bring benefit to the area.

No-one wants to see charges made to walk or climb in Scotland’s mountains, and it would stick in many a craw to stump up to wealthy landowners, but the Assynt Foundation is the opposite of that, and has struggled to monetise its assets while being left with the management issue of thousands of people accessing its property.

Anyone who’s read what I have written before will expect that at this point I’ll say we all need to pay more tax for these things, and that’d be right, but it’s unlikely to solve the specific problem in the immediate future.

That’s because income tax is collected centrally, so there’s no connection between the increased employment generated by tourism and the cash available to local authorities to pay for stuff.

The answer has to be a tourist tax: however much the tourism businesses complain, a quid extra per bed-night, hypothecated for tourism infrastructure, should not be a big deal.

It would be great to see that being paid to real local authority with say just 10,000 to 20,000 or so people in its area, but that’s another argument …