Guest Insight: Where sustainability meets tourism
This blog was written by our guest author George Baxter (Director of Development at GreenPower International) who recently spoke at our SHREC conference and was a judge for this year’s Scottish Highlands and Islands Renewable Awards. Thank you to George for his contribution.
People seem to love a good argument – some say it might be Scottish thing, others that it’s only natural that the competition for attention across the media and the internet takes the easy route by polarising ideas – I mean, why spoil the opportunity to have constructive debate or discussion, when you can have a big argument instead?
When I first began my work in renewables development nearly 20 years ago, I was struck by how polarised the apparent ‘debate’ between the renewables and the tourism industries was in the north. SSE was developing wind farms and hydro in the Great Glen region and a small number of anti-wind farm campaigners were complaining about the Glen becoming surrounded by a ‘ring of steel’, claiming that the tourism industry would be destroyed. I decided to investigate.
My first port of call was to speak to Mr Loch Ness himself, Willie Cameron. He personally meets and greets literally thousands of tourists every year, I asked him whether the tourists he meets ever complain about seeing wind turbines. He looked at me curiously, shook his head, and said he could count on the fingers of one hand how many people had said anything, positive or negative about a turbine in his decades of involvement in the tourism industry in Scotland.
I thought I better look at it more scientifically so then read a report conducted by consultancy Biggar Economics, investigating whether there was any evidence of negative effect on tourism. Surveying tourism numbers and wind farm developments, they found no evidence of any negative effect. In fact, as wind farms and hydro have developed in the Highlands, tourist numbers have skyrocketed at the same time.
Of course, wind farms have to be well designed, and placed sympathetically, but my conclusion was that the fears over tourism impact are largely manufactured. As I got to know Willie and others in the tourism industry, it became obvious to me that there was more to be gained by working together than apart as the two biggest industries in the highlands. And the opportunities to do so are already happening. In the Great Glen for example, wind farm developments have paid for upgrades to degraded and dangerous roads, have invested in the cycle/walking paths around the loch and have created jobs for local people.
My epiphany was that both industries have a responsibility to work together to create a sustainable economy across the region. And with the climate emergency as an over-riding priority for every one of us, the responsibility has never been greater. I was delighted therefore to be asked to join the Board of the newly established Highland Tourism Community Interest Company, to help get the renewables industry more positively and strategically engaged in common cause.
Highland Tourism CIC is dedicated to making the Highlands and Islands a world leading environmentally responsible and sustainable destination, and that objective must be one that sees renewable energy as something to be welcomed and celebrated as part of the highland environment, not a threat to it. We have all sorts of plans through a newly established Climate Positive Leadership Group to help make this happen. We are aiming to calculate the tourism industry’s carbon footprint, and to help the sector on a trajectory for significant reduction in its impact over the coming years. We are promoting actions that individual businesses can take now, and create an agenda for change and policy support to help businesses and communities transform.
The spiralling cost of energy, driven by fossil fuels, (not renewables which are the cheapest forms of power) means we have to support businesses and communities to make the transition more quickly. Heating and transport are the two key areas for more radical action. How quickly can we create the best EV charging network in the UK, how can green hydrogen be accelerated to deliver an alternative to climate wrecking fuels? How can solar, batteries and heat pumps be rolled out, and crucially what additional support from government and local authorities can enable the transition so that it is affordable for those in fuel poverty or businesses that are suffering massive cost increases? The renewable sector has a key role to play in this and working together we can achieve so much more than working apart.
The renewables industry is already part of the tourism experience. People visit the Highlands for all sorts of reasons – the food and drink, the landscape, the awe-inspiring nature – but they also want to visit places that take their climate and environmental responsibilities seriously. Through the Great Glen for example, most of the wind and hydro infrastructure cannot be easily seen, it is too well designed, yet it is one of the biggest power stations in Europe – who knew? Community funds in the Glen also amount to millions of pounds every year. We should celebrate that, make it a virtue for the visitor experience. Celebrate the fact that wind farm funds have supported not just golden eagle regeneration across the region, but also supported the rebuild of the doctor’s surgery in Fort Augustus, contributed to the Loch Ness 360 and peatland restoration as part of their development obligations. This picture, of renewable development, creating jobs and making a positive difference to local communities is even more pronounced in remoter parts of the highlands.
HTCIC wants to break the mould, where traditional promotion is about visiting a place that is preserved in aspic, and changing that to a visitor experience that is rooted in visiting a sustainable and living landscape of people, nature and renewables.