Work has now started on a long distance walking and cycling route which could lead thousands of visitors to the Western Isles .
The project, which has already secured funding £1.4 million, is predicted bring big financial benefits to the islands, having a knock on effect on a range of businesses.
One thousand cyclists already travel the length of the Outer Hebrides each year, and it is estimated the Hebridean Way will increase this number by an additional 2,000, putting £742,000 into the local economy.
It is also anticipated that around 500 people a year will walk the entire Hebridean Way route and spending an average of £560 each.
The project is funded by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the European Regional Development Fund (which is contributing 40% of the funds).
So far the planned route will run through Vatersay, Barra, the Uists, Harris and Lewis - stopping in Stornoway. However it is anticipated additional funding will be confirmed to extend it to the Butt of Lewis.
The walking route is mainly off road and makes use of existing paths. It is on schedule to be completed by March 2015. Meanwhile the cycle route will take advantage of existing roads and will be completed, including signage, by Spring 2014.
The project has been ongoing for more than a year, with discussion with landowners and crofters taking place. Final routes for the path are not yet confirmed but work has begun on the first phases with local contractors, John Allan MacLellan and MacAulay Askernish Ltd, on the ground in North Uist. Dedicated trail SNH staff in Uist have been working on the routes.
A Scottish Natural Heritage spokesperson explained: “Currently we employ one project officer in Uist to implement the route from Vatersay to the Sound of Harris but we expect to employ a second project officer shortly to implement phase two through Harris and Lewis.”
He continued: “We can confirm that phase one of the Hebridean Way is going well in Uist and we have started construction work on one of the sections.”
With work now started on the trail itself there has been mounting excitement from the walking and cycling industry.
Mick Blunt, who runs the island based walking company Hidden Hebrides, commented: “Obviously the new route will be of interest to businesses like mine which are directly involved in walking tourism, but there should be a lot of spin off benefits for the wider tourism economy, as walkers will be using accommodation providers, campsites, cafes, restaurants, and so on.
“Last year SNH published a study into the economic benefits of the new John Muir Trail long distance route that runs across central Scotland. This estimated that the new Trail would, over five years, generate £27.2 million pounds of total economic impact, creating or safeguarding 708 jobs.
“If the new Hebridean Way has only a fraction of this impact, it will still be a very significant economic asset for the islands.”
Alan Mackenzie, VisitScotlands’ Islands Manage, added: “The Herbidean Way will be incredibly attractive to a wide range of active visitors considering booking a break in the Outer Hebrides. We warmly welcome the proposed investment in the Hebridean tourism product that will ensure we better cater for our active visitors.”