​Balance to be struck over tourism conflict

A warning that “negativity” towards tourism could cause economic damage to the islands has come from the chief executive of Outer Hebrides Tourism, Sarah Maclean.
A traffic logjam on Skye shows what can happen when visitor numbers are out of balance with the supporting infrastructure.  (Pic: Peter Summers/Getty Images)A traffic logjam on Skye shows what can happen when visitor numbers are out of balance with the supporting infrastructure.  (Pic: Peter Summers/Getty Images)
A traffic logjam on Skye shows what can happen when visitor numbers are out of balance with the supporting infrastructure. (Pic: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

She was responding to an outpouring of anger over an incident in Harris which allegedly involved tourists. Ms Maclean said that social media “amplifies” the negative views which are held by a minority.

Ms Maclean said she understood only too well how conflict can arise between visitors and the needs of the local community due to irresponsible behaviour by one or two individuals, but stressed that tourists bring a vital source of income to the local economy.

She was speaking after Harris crofter Jonathon MacKay posted a video following the discovery of human faeces on his croft. He was understandably outraged and said it was the second time it had happened.

Mr Mackay’s post drew a wave of supportive comments many of them critical of tourist behaviour while others pointed out that the Western Isles is not alone in this respect.

The incident also comes against a backdrop of complaints that tourists are using the Luskentrye cemetery car park for accessing the nearby beach, blocking access for locals and even at times interfering with funerals.

Ms Maclean said: “We are aware that some islanders feel negatively towards visitors, some object to the general disruption the visitor season brings, others have specific and understandable reason to be upset at unacceptable behaviour..

“However it is hard to say if negativity towards visitors is growing or if social media communities where people can collectively express negative views in a public forum have created the impression of a growing negativity.

“We receive very, very few communications directly from local people or communities about poor visitor behaviour and indeed would encourage anyone who has an incident or example they would like to raise to get in touch.

“This year we have received far more e-mails from members of the community, whose livelihoods depend on tourism, concerned that some areas have seen fewer visitors this year.”

Ms Maclean said: “It is our aim to work with the community to strike the balance and make sure tourism works for the islands and we, along with other tourism leadership partners, would encourage folk to speak to us directly so we can look at what needs to be done.”

On the potential damage to tourism on the islands due to this perceived negativity, Ms Maclean stated: “Unfortunately, it seems that the strength of feeling expressed in a minority of social media posts is reaching prospective visitors and we have dealt with more enquiries this year than ever before from people asking if they will be welcome in the islands and debating whether they should come at all.

“Coupled with the ferry disruptions of recent years, recruitment challenges and the high inflation costs businesses have had to absorb, a perception that visitors are not welcome is bad news for local tourism. The visitor industry locally is the biggest private sector contributor to the islands economy, bringing in over £75 million a year and supporting upwards of 1,000 jobs.

“Incidents of inconsiderate or unhygienic behaviour are ultimately a problem of poor human behaviour and we feel it is important not to attribute every ill to visitors. Greater numbers of people in anyone place can lead to episodes of unsanitary or anti-social behaviour.

“The popularity of day-trips, camping, hiking etc. in our beauty spots is growing with islanders and those from elsewhere. Anyone can get caught short or drop litter and we must be careful not to just black-list visitors when good practice in the great outdoors must apply to everyone.”

Ms MacLean added: “We are well aware that the economic benefits to the islands must be balanced against community life and the tourism sector works hard to engage with visitors to encourage positive behaviour.

“OHT has no enforcement powers or resources to monitor individual visitor behaviour across the islands, but we do work closely with colleagues at [Comhairle nan Eilean Siar] who do have enforcement powers to take action if necessary.

“We also work with public-sector partners and communities to identify and deliver the infrastructure, services and information visitors need to have an enjoyable and non-impactful holiday in the islands.

“With greater funding, all agencies who support tourism could do more and we are always looking at ways we can make budgets work to improve facilities, signage, parking etc.”

By Wednesday of this week, more than a thousand people had “liked” Mr Mackay Facebook video. However, many of the respondents pointed out that “it’s the same all over the country” and that, while deplorable, behaviour of this kind was by no means restricted to the Western Isles.

Ms Maclean highlighted that the organisation was now in the third year of its PLACE responsible tourism campaign and had produced a dedicated guide for motorhome and camping tourism.

GAZETTE VIEW: There is nothing new about conflict between locals and tourists. In Skye, for example, it has been an issue for decades but somehow the two manage to rub along together and it will be the same here.

Locals are right to be disgusted by specific incidents and frustrated by more general behaviours, such as the refusal to use passing-places. Equally, Sarah Maclean is right to call for a sense of proportion.

There are several factors at play. First, an increase in visitor numbers which is supported by public policy, local and national. We call for more ferries with bigger capacities while building a terminal to take the world’s largest cruise ships. That is not exactly symptomatic of an “anti-tourist” consensus.

Then there is social media which amplifies issues which otherwise might stay local. It is good that Jonathon Mackay was able to inform a wide audience about a particularly unpleasant experience and unsurprising that many empathised with him. But that does not translate into wider “anti-tourist” sentiment.

As many who responded to Mr Mackay pointed out, the same “small minority” behaviour can be found in any part of the UK. That does not make it any better but it does offer perspective. There is no trend in human behaviour or societal failings from which the islands are immune.

What is undoubtedly true is that more tourists need more facilities – like toilets. That is a positive case we should all be able to unite around.