Keeping it natural

Written by Neil Evans on 3 December 2012 in Inside Politics

 The big push is to get people to enjoy the great natural assets Scotland has to offer

VisitScotland HQ may be in a fairly unremarkable location - a dock-side tower block next to Edinburgh’s main shopping mall, amid patches of bare and ugly brownfield land.

However, as you reach its offices on the top floor with its big glass windows, it becomes obvious why it is a perfect location for the government agency.

Presiding over the cityscape, the view takes in first the newer flats and developments in Leith, then the historic Old Town and finally, centres on the ancient castle rock at its heart.

This reflects its chairman Mike Cantlay’s assertion that “there is no poor part of Scotland, we have everything on our doorstep” - and that outlook is one of the fundamental principles behind the next big campaign - 2013: Th e Year of Natural Scotland.

Since 2009 every year in Scotland has had a themed year. Homecoming saw Scots from across the world encouraged to come and explore their roots, Active wanted to make a nation healthier, Food and Drink celebrated the great larder on off er within these shores and this year marks the country’s creative credentials.

Th ere are more to come. In 2014, a year when Scotland welcomes the Ryder Cup and the Commonwealth Games, there is a second Homecoming - centred around the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.

But before that, Cantlay says the big push is to get people to enjoy the great natural assets Scotland has to off er.

He says: “When it comes to making the most of 2013, we particularly want to encourage Scots to get out and enjoy their country more - to get out and see things they hadn’t seen before, try things they haven’t done and perhaps forge a new relationship with the tourist industry in Scotland.

“If the truth be told, how many Scots haven’t The Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park been to Banff , Buchan and the North East corner of Scotland, the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway - north of Inverness or even north of Perth?

“How many Scots haven’t not just made it round all our Scottish islands - but haven’t been to any?

“Th e year of Natural Scotland is particularly different and my aspiration is that it’s not just a theme that works for the industry, this time out it’s something that really catches the mood and the aspiration of every Scot.” Even more than this, he said that 2013 was an important part of gearing up for the following year as the country gets ready again to welcome the world.

Th e overarching theme of Natural will include the landscape, wildlife, historic buildings such as the many castles and stately homes in Scotland, as well as themes that have already been explored in previous ‘focus years’ such as the food and drink on offer.

Th e chief driver behind the campaign is tourism.

According to figures from Scottish Natural Heritage, the value to Scotland’s economy of nature-based tourism alone is £1.4bn per year.

A new advert will be launched in January - the Creative Scotland one has been seen by 20 million people across the UK.

Th ere will be more than 40 fl agship events throughout 2013, some of them new - to be announced at later dates by the Scottish Government - although many of them existing dates in the calendar, but now included as part of the Natural Scotland umbrella.

Existing events like the Turriff Show, and the Enchanted Forest, a sound and light show at Faskally Wood near Pitlochry - which this year has been promoted as part of the year of Creative Scotland - are seen as examples of how the theme can be put to good use.

Cantlay says: “If you take the Turriff Show - we don’t need another Turriff Show, it’s brilliant. We just need more people to be encouraged to go and see it.

“And the Enchanted Forest will be as strong a project in the year of Natural Scotland as it was in the year of Creative Scotland. It was just awesome, as long as I live I will remember visiting it. An amazing 30,000 people go and I’d love to see so many more Scots go and see that - Pitlochry is within an hour’s drive of three million people.” Even events like Rockness, the music festival by the banks of Loch Ness, the Wickerman in Dumfries and Galloway and the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival are all seen as perfect matches for the Natural ‘brand’.

However, as well as events throughout the year, the organisations overseeing the campaign are trying to stoke up interest from other parties as well and get them involved. In Battleby, more than 150 tourist industry professionals gathered to hear how they could make more out of the year - the event was a sell-out.

A VisitScotland Growth Fund of £150,000 was launched in September and Destination Loch Ness has already received £25,000 to help its marketing efforts. In the Scottish Government’s draft budget for 2013/14, there is £1.6m allocated for major events and themed years, which will be split between both Natural Scotland and preparing for Homecoming in 2014.

There are other features being launched to coincide with the campaign. SNH, which is the lead partner, has put out to tender plans for a mobile app that will give people using trains in Scotland more information about the land they are travelling through. It is developing a series of audio tours to give people travelling by rail an extra dimension to their journey. The plans will feature on the three main routes, Edinburgh to Aberdeen, Edinburgh to Inverness and Glasgow to Oban.

The themes of Natural Scotland also include celebrating Scotland as a ‘natural playground’ - following on from the year of Active Scotland - and will also draw on the green spaces within cities and towns.

Alison Bell, principal communications adviser at SNH, said: “There are great walks in our cities across Scotland and very close to our cities, there are national nature reserves, but we also have local nature reserves that people can go to that actually offer opportunities to interpret and get closer to nature.” SNH is also carrying out work alongside Young Scot, which is trying to get the younger generation more involved.

She added: “It is about increasing the awareness and understanding of our natural heritage and trying to encourage people to engage with it. That might mean going out and actually touching it, feeling it and walking through it, but it might also mean learning more about it from your own home - a website, for example.” John Muir, the Dunbar-born naturalist who was a key participant in the formation of the National Parks in the US, died in 1914 and the year after Natural Scotland finishes there will be a series of events to celebrate his life - including the opening of a new long-distance walk named after him.

But next year will also see an attempt to further raise his profile - which is still greater in the US than in Scotland. SNH is encouraging nature reserves to hold events on his birthday, 21 April and has said he will be a “recurring theme” throughout the year.

National parks in Scotland will also have an important role to play in 2013 with the two that have only been in existence for a decade - Cairngorms and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs - being focal points for visitors.

Cairngorms National Park covers roughly 10 per cent of Scotland, it was recently named one of the 50 great destinations in National Geographic magazine and is home to iconic - and intrinsically Scottish - species like the Red Squirrel and Golden Eagle: Francoise van Buuren said “The National Park brand is internationally very well known and it draws a lot of people who may not otherwise have come to Scotland,” she said.

“We want more people to understand what the National Park has to offer. In the Cairngorms we have fantastic landscape, we have the range of wildlife, the species that we have, the historical connections this park has, the number of activities it has to offer people and how surprisingly accessible it is to get to some of these remote places.

“Natural Scotland creates a greater focus on the natural assets of Scotland, so people at home take what we’ve got on our doorstep for granted.” One of the key aspects of the campaign will be aiming to instil a new sense of pride in people for the area where they live. Cantlay says that in his previous role as convener of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, one of the jobs the rangers did at the height of the summer season, was to tour the area and pick up abandoned tents that holidaymakers had left behind. He said it was not a case of educating people to look after their country better, but giving them more of a sense of ownership.

The charity Keep Scotland Beautiful has launched a new campaign to coincide with the themed year - Clean Up Scotland. This year its annual National Spring Clean grew to astonishing proportions, with what it estimates to be up to 250,000 people taking part, clearing up beaches, parks and communal areas across the nation.

To expand on this, next year it will be aiming to get one million people to sign its pledge - effectively promising not to drop litter again. A range of companies have signed up from BT and Scottish Water to Coca Cola and McDonalds.

Derek Robertson, chief executive of Keep Scotland Beautiful, said: “This campaign, the headline act is about litter, but really it’s about more than that. It’s about environmental incivility and ultimately we want to try and achieve behaviour change. This is an opportunity to drive this unsavoury activity out of existence - which is a lofty ambition; but given Scotland will be a focal point in 2014 in particular, we want people to come and experience Scotland and not be concerned with some of the stuff they might find today if they had a good look around.

“This is a call to arms and the ambition for Keep Scotland Beautiful is to try to, by the end of 2014, to make flyposting, dumping, littering and illegal waste as socially unacceptable as drink driving.” With the focus years being so well used since 2009 there could almost be a danger of ‘focus fatigue’, but Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism, Fergus Ewing, said: “The track record shows clearly that the device of the focus years is commercially successful. So as a direct response to the question what is the point? The point is that the use of branding years with a particular slant has delivered additional financial gains for Scotland.

“The Year of Natural Scotland will spotlight, celebrate and promote our outstanding of natural beauty and landscape, our animals, our wildlife to people and our visitors. These years have been tremendously successful - that’s why we do them.” The first Homecoming brought in 95,000 visitors and generated £53.7m in additional tourism to Scotland - more than its £44m target. The year of Food and Drink saw 500,000 people attend events and activities throughout the year and there was a 6 per cent rise in participation levels in sports and other active pursuits during the year of Active.

Assessment figures for the current year of Creative are not yet available but the Government said messaging had reached almost 70 million people worldwide.

Although the official statistics highlight the successes, there have been incidents that have sometimes marred the overall picture.

One of the highlights of the 2009 Homecoming was The Gathering - a mass get-together of clans in Edinburgh, which attracted about 47,000 people and was estimated to have generated £10.4m. But the company that ran it collapsed despite more than £500,000 in grants and £180,000 from the Scottish Government - with some creditors still being owed money. This year Creative Scotland - the lead partner behind the year of Creative, has faced quite severe public criticism.

However, Ewing said: “These incidents or stooshies occupy a lot of column inches, but I don’t think they detract from the successes of the marvellous marketing effort of VisitScotland and the success of the industry. The statistics for the overall tourism levels show a remarkable resilience in Scotland in the face of a global recession and the highest Air Passenger Duty levels, the second highest VAT rates and amongst the highest fuel duty rates in Europe. I’m proud and delighted these efforts have caught the imagination of the public.

The challenge is to do so in ways that will be of real benefit to tourism industries up and down the country.

And Cantlay said while these issues were important close to home - they were not damaging the industry overall.

He added: “If you go to North America, they are still raving about The Gathering. Back here, I know the pain that some of the creditors who’ve suffered as a result of the financial challenges of The Gathering, so I wouldn’t want in any way to belittle some of the challenges, but the fact is from a tourist perspective, the customer satisfaction was amazing.” Of course, there was one issue which has threatened to overshadow the efforts to celebrate Scotland’s natural heritage, it is the issue of wind turbines.

Last month the Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee released its conclusions after a long inquiry earlier this year into the impact of renewables. Despite evidence given to the committee from witnesses - including US tycoon Donald Trump - that wind farms could harm tourism and damage the natural environment - the committee’s report was unequivocal that there was no evidence to back up the argument.

Nevertheless the argument has raged on and claims that the green technology being pursued by the Scottish Government - as part of its commitment to provide the equivalent of 100 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020 - is putting people off coming to Scotland.

It even saw a US talk show encouraging its listeners to write to First Minister Alex Salmond and threaten to boycott the country.

The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has called for a moratorium on development in areas of special interest and called the report “weak and out of date” MCoS chief officer David Gibson said: “The issue with tourists is about perception. Research recently from the John Muir Trust and YouGov stated that 43 per cent of people said they would be less likely to visit an area where there were wind farms.

“Tourists will make their mind up. They vote with their feet - they don’t tell you what they are doing, they just don’t come any more and that is a real risk in certain areas of Scotland where there is likely to be a cumulative impact from wind farms.

A good example is Ben Wyvis, there’s a proposal at the moment to site a wind farm on the slopes.

That’s an iconic mountain, north of Inverness. You go over the Kessock Bridge and there’s a wind farm in view. Is that sending the right message? I don’t think so.” The organisation, which has 11,500 members, wants a national spatial strategy for wind farms and Gibson said the prevalence of wind technology was sending out mixed messages.

He said: “Scotland is still a great place to come, but I’m saying to people overseas, come to Scotland now if you’re coming but don’t leave it too late. It could be while we have the year of Natural Scotland next year, the following year could be Homecoming, the lights are on but nobody’s coming home, because of the proliferation of wind farms.” But VisitScotland said its own figures - which were presented to the EET committee - showed that 83 per cent of people surveyed said having a wind farm nearby was not an issue that affected whether they would come to stay. Cantlay said: “It is an emotive issue in the industry and people immediately assume you’ve got wind turbines everywhere and surely that’s an issue. It’s not what the evidence base shows.

“To the contrary, one of the issues that Scotland always polls very strongly on is our green credentials.

A lot of people view their holiday patterns as being important from an environmental perspective.” And Fergus Ewing added that the work that went into renewable projects, such as the construction itself, brought a boost to business of its own in rural areas - as well as the value to business tourism created from events like conferences in renewable energy and said tens of thousands of people were coming to Scotland who would not otherwise have visited because of the nation’s status as a ‘world leader’ in renewable energy.

And he denied the issue of wind turbines was having a negative effect and added: “I think what I will do is go with the evidence of my own eyes and ears, my own experience as Tourism Minister in the responses I have got and that has been overwhelmingly positive.” So back to that idea that there are “no poor parts of Scotland.” Ewing says that he is planning to visit many parts of the country he has not seen before - including Dunbar, John Muir’s birthplace - and said his ministerial colleagues would be “stepping up to the plate”.

And he added: “Let’s make 2013 start off with the resolution that throughout the year we will take our families to some of these marvellous sites and events throughout the year - the glens, lochs, castles and gardens.

“I hope this can be the year when we get out of our armchairs and into the countryside to sample the attractions we have.

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