Comhairle look at the challenges of increased tourism on the islands
The challenges faced by communities in the Western Isles as they deal with the impacts of increased tourism could be the subject of a new five year Visitor Management Plan if councillors on Comhairle nan Eilean Siar back the move.
A proposal for the plan is due to be considered by authority's Sustainable Development Committee next week, and a report that will be before that meeting confirms that tourism is the biggest private sector contributor to the economy of the islands with a survey in 2018 confirming a 15 per cent rise in leisure visitors in just over three years.
However, the report states, the increased volume of people using the local infrastructure ‘is not without its challenges’ and states that it has been apparent over recent years that many sites, especially those of notable interest and scenery, ‘are experiencing seasonal pressure on services and resources’.
The tourism sector in the islands was hard-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, the report states, but the islands still saw a considerable volume of visitors last summer with many opting to camp or travel by motorhome.
Communities across the islands reported issues with road congestion, unsuitable parking, overflowing rubbish bins, environmental damage and a lack of public toilets and motorhome waste disposal points along with reports of unsanitary disposal of rubbish and human waste.
The report before councillors next week also acknowledges that there was insufficient visitor information on the location and availability of local facilities which were open. It is known that many campsites for example closed as a result of government guidance, which in turn left a gap for those tourists who still travelled in terms of where to stay and where they could access public facilities.
In September 2020, in response to the concerns raised, a report was presented to the Comhairle’s Policy and Resources Committee looking at the regulation of camping in the islands.
That report examined existing legislation to manage and regulate camping and access to locations which were being used by tourists, along with the further options available to the Comhairle to introduce area specific controls for some of the busiest areas, particularly those with beach access, which last year saw a huge number of people camping or parking motorhomes.
That report proposed that through the establishment of a cross-service group and a visitor management plan the Comhairle could look further into solutions to prevent or deter unregulated camping.
The report before next week’s committee concludes that the growth of the tourism sector in the islands over the last ten years ‘is something that the islands can both be proud of and can build further opportunity upon’, but states that with this growth ‘comes responsibility to manage the environmental, social and cultural impacts tourism inevitably brings’.
The report confirms that pre-pandemic, the value of tourism to the local economy was on target to exceed £74m per year by 2020, and it supported approximately 1200 FTE jobs.
The Comahirle's Sustainable Development Committee meets next on Wednesday 24 March, when further discussion will take place on the report, given that it now seems lockdown is ending.