Am Bratach No. 313
November 2017

Tourist rush for NW businesses

The 2017 season has rushed by with no sign of the upturn in visitors slackening for businesses situated along the North Coast 500 route. When we spoke to Sarah Macleod, manager of the Shore Caravan Site in Achmelvich on the last day of their season, she had just completed adding up the figures for the year. “We’re almost double what we were in 2015. It’s been unbelievable,” she said. Check-in figures are also around 30% up on 2016.

Ms Macleod believes that the North Coast 500 has had a lot to do with the increase, resulting in many people continuing to visit outside the traditional camping season. “We usually get quiet as soon as the school holidays go back in August but it didn’t stop. We actually extended by a week last year in October because there were so many people around.”

One change, however, is the pace at which people travel. “The only thing that I’ve noticed, which is a little bit of a shame, is the fact that they only stay one night”, Ms Macleod said. “I don’t think they realise that there is quite so much beauty in the place so they’re not giving themselves enough time to do it — they’re trying to do it in a week.”

Another change is the level of congestion and its resulting strain on infrastructure. “On a nice day, you get all the people that are staying in Lochinver coming down to Achmelvich and there was one day that the beach car park was so full that the cars were parking partly on the machair, they were parking down the side of the road, on the grass. They were actually at the turning point where the phone box is. It was just covered in cars. I’ve never seen that many cars in my life”, said Ms Macleod. “The beach was packed. There were hundreds of people on the beach and it was just unbelievable to see it.”

Media attention — Achmelvich was voted Scotland’s best beach by the BBC’s Landward programme in 2016 — can be good for business, but frustrations ensue when there is no corresponding investment in public services. “There has been a lot of press on Achmelvich itself, which is nice, but I just wish that we had a better road system or better parking and that the council cared about our area, and cared about our beach”, said Ms Macleod. “We’re not the only place with single track roads that are falling to bits, but ours are actually disintegrating around us. Our parking places are becoming mud pits because the tar has disintegrated. At the end of the day, if our road crumbles away or these potholes get so big they’re impassable, we’ve got two major businesses — me and Durrant Macleod who does the Hillhead caravans — and then you’ve got the youth hostel as well as the people that live here. What kind of impact would that have?”

A major strain on narrow single track roads is the increase in large motorhomes travelling the route. A study of NC500 visitors carried out by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (published June 2017) found that 26% of respondents travelled by motorhome, while 51% were either staying in a motorhome or camping as they travelled the route.

Not all campers and caravaners choose to pay for overnight facilities at a designated campsite. Where numbers are concentrated, this can lead to issues with waste disposal and pollution. Sarah MacLeod says that campers have been found disposing of chemical toilet waste at the public toilets at Clachtoll, from which waste flows out to sea. There are also localised issues at popular overnight spots, such as the overflowing litter bins at Ardvreck Castle.

Action on some of these points is in the pipeline. “I’ve just joined the committee that is going to be putting in an Elsan disposal point and grey water point at the crossroads in Lochinver”, Ms Macleod said. “Hopefully that will get funded over the winter. I’m hoping that it will be put in place at some point next year.”

A similar attempt to cater for unregulated campers has already been established further up the coast. In 2015, the Kinlochbervie Community Company set up an overnight stopover point for campervans at Loch Clash. The facility is self-service, with waste disposal, water and electric hook-ups. An honesty system for using the stopover is in operation, with tickets to be purchased from the nearby Spar shop. Company chair Graham Wild said that the project had gone “exceptionally well”, although the five berths available can only scratch the surface of demand. There are plans to expand the facility via a second phase of development, as toilet and shower facilities are required before the license can be extended for further vehicles.

Alongside campers, the North Coast 500 is a popular route for cyclists, and is specifically marketed as such via itineraries on the route’s official website. Simon Wilkinson, who recently moved from Lancashire to Sutherland, has just completed his first season running a cycle workshop, Pedal Power Highlands, from his new base at Armadale. Mr Wilkinson has worked in the cycle trade for twenty-eight years, having taken over his parents’ business, Pedal Power Clitheroe, back home in Lancashire.

Mr Wilkinson said he had had a “really busy summer”, with the mobile repair side of the business doing particularly well. Previously situated in Clitheroe, which lies along the main Land’s End to John O’Groats route, he is no stranger to helping long-distance cyclists get back on the road. This summer, however, he has seen them closer to their journey’s end.

On the down side, he has found little market for bike hire so far in Armadale, something he puts down to two factors: a smaller demographic, and the pace at which North Coast 500 travellers opt to explore. “I think the reason it’s not going to work up here is because all the NC500 people are just passing through”, he said. “If there’s any way that we can manage to slow them down, whether it’s to hire a bike or walk, or trying to offer them better accommodation, it’s going to be better for the local economy and people that are offering other things.”

One of the things that has frustrated Pedal Power’s first summer at Armadale is the lack of mobile phone reception, which has hampered Mr Wilkinson’s ability to respond to customer emergencies as quickly as he would have liked. “A lot of the customers, unbeknown to me, ring my mobile because they don’t understand about the mobile phone reception”, he said. He hopes this issue may soon be resolved through the appearance of a new phone mast in Armadale, which has yet to go live.

For next summer, Pedal Power has plans to diversify in an attempt to draw in more passing and local trade and spread the word about the cycle business. One idea is to re-open the coffee shop which Mr Wilkinson combined with his store in Clitheroe. “I brought all of my coffee shop stuff up with me. If I can get people here and get them enjoying a coffee, then maybe they might start thinking about hiring bikes.” 

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