Am Bratach No. 307
May 2017


Do-it-yourself visitor centres

VisitScotland’s commitment to funding tourist information centres in north-west Sutherland is officially winding down. The national tourism body has honoured its expressed wish to continue information provision in both Lochinver and Durness for the 2017 season. However, change is definitely on the way.

Although the Durness information centre will continue in its current premises, for which a four-year lease has been agreed, the Lochinver visitor centre has already closed. Both buildings were sold to a Dorset businessman by Highlands and Islands Enterprise twelve years ago.

A VisitScotland spokesperson said: “Regrettably we were unable to reach a positive outcome regarding the lease of our iCentre in Lochinver and, on May 15, our lease of the building on the Main Street ended. For the coming season, commencing from April 2 2017, VisitScotland is delivering manned information provision from the Lochinver Mission, at Culag Park.”

The Highland Council’s ranger service, which used to have a base in the visitor centre, has now been squeezed into a small office in the Mission building. Andy Summers, the council’s senior ranger in Lochinver, said that Discover Assynt were looking into using a room at the mission for exhibitions and displays but that a lot of preparatory work was needed to make the room useable and it will not happen this year.

The display material from the former visitor centre, purpose-built and opened in 1995, is currently in storage at the mothballed Stoer Primary School, pending the development of further plans.

At present, it does not look likely that VisitScotland intend to continue funding an information service in Lochinver beyond the current season. Instead, the trend is to “help” community groups to run information centres in rural areas while the national body concentrates on larger towns and cities.

A VisitScotland statement confirmed that this was the drift of their outlook: “Going forward, we’ll be helping Assynt Community Association and partners explore additional ways in which to offer visitor information provision beyond the traditional seasonal hours. We are also finalising plans to relocate and refurbish the much-used Inverness iCentre, and are designing it to serve not only Inverness and surrounding area, but the Highlands and wider region.”

Mary Hinsley, currently the sole VisitScotland employee at the Lochinver centre, said that working in the relocated information point was “like wearing a pair of new shoes”, and that the infrastructure — landline telephone and intranet system — still needed to be finalised. However, she was upbeat about visitor numbers, saying that they had increased, and that people seemed to be finding the new premises.

Wearing another hat as the chair of local tourism group Discover Assynt, Mrs Hinsley was positive about the move towards community management. She cautioned, however, that any new development must create employment and have a positive economic impact. “You can no longer have vanity projects”, she said.

To find out more about the move to community ownership, we spoke to Madeline MacPhail, a member of the Assynt Community Association. Mrs MacPhail was one of the instigators of the original visitor centre in the 1990s. She said that the recent crisis at Lochinver tourist office came to some extent “out of the blue”. “The hope was that VisitScotland would get another two or three years’ lease to give the community a breathing space to sort things out, but that didn’t happen. We didn’t know until February that we had to be out by April.”

Mrs MacPhail explained the involvement of the Assynt Community Association as the result of a recent decision to give the group a more formal development remit. “Suddenly the visitor centre was going to be closed and obviously development of tourism is one of the most important things in the North West Highlands because it is the most important industry in this area,” she said. “We had to take this on.”

Mrs MacPhail admits that there is as yet “no blueprint” for how things will develop in Lochinver. On April 25, three members of the Assynt Community Association travelled to Gairloch to see how information provision is managed in the locally-run GALE Centre. Alongside tourist information, Gairloch has retail space, a café which local people bake for, and an educational facility which is let out to West Highland College.

The GALE Centre was established at a time when, according to Mrs MacPhail, it was much easier to access public funding. How a local information centre can be funded and sustained without incurring financial risk for the previously troubled Community Association is a major question. “Things have changed and it’s now another time for change”, says Mrs MacPhail. “There’s no room for income from [accommodation] booking fees any more. Visit Scotland can’t afford to run these places if there’s no sustainable income.”

If the national tourism body can’t do it, how can the situation be redeemed by turning the centre over to local management? Mary Hinsley believes that “community groups are best placed to sell their own area” and that there is a need to “get local businesses of all varieties on board.” She is confident that the market for locally produced and themed goods can bring in much-needed cash through retail.

Mrs MacPhail says that “when the visitor centre was opened, there was a survey done, and we found that a huge percentage of people stayed longer in Assynt or came back again because of what they’d learned in the visitor centre.” She believes this is still relevant today. “We don’t want to lose that, especially because of the North Coast 500 — people are rushing through.”

The crux is how to turn the increased spending which might result from people staying longer in the area back into a revenue stream which can justify sustaining a manned service in the village.

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