Ard Neackie and Loch Eriboll, in Sutherland. Picture courtesy of Reader Mike Coats
Sutherland has enjoyed another boom year for tourism according to early figures coming in to Highland Council’s tourism department.
A picture is emerging of almost half a million visitors to the county staying around 1 million nights and spending £99 million locally, Highland Council’s principal tourism and film officer Colin Simpson told a meeting of Sutherland councillors in Golspie yesterday.
Sutherland’s share comes from more than 6.5 million visitors to Highland.
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They stayed 15.4 million nights, he said, adding that visitor numbers to Highland attractions were up 10.5% on last year to the end of September.
The growth in the cruise business is bringing a boost in day visitors to the county, with passengers taking off on trips to Sutherland beauty spots from the ports of Invergordon and Scrabster.
Mr Simpson said soundings from businesses showed an increase in optimism for tourism over the season overall higher than the Scottish average.
He said the NC500 route had brought a number of benefits to Sutherland, including extending the season, with some businesses able to stay open an extra month.
The route had played a part in supporting new businesses and jobs, and bringing supply chain benefits and spin-off businesses.
But it also brought challenges, Mr Simpson said, particularly in services to support motorhomes.
He said work was underway by NC500 to look at visitor hubs for Sutherland with different facilities all on one site to deal with motorhome waste, and including services like toilets, wifi and vehicle charging sites.
Councillor Linda Munro said: “We need to have a more mature conversation about campervans. They don’t contribute to the local economy and can have a negative impact on communities.
“We need to encourage them to stop and eat out with a more formal parking area close to amenities where we can encourage them to spend their money.
“I recognise the motorhome market is a whole spectrum, but a different way of doing things is necessary.
“The NC500 has done great things for tourism, but not everyone in tourism.”
Mr Simpson said Sutherland had a number of expressions of interest in the second round of funding from the £6m Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund, including ‘Aires’ –overnight parking with facilities- at Bettyhill, Scourie, Rhiconich, Lairg, Brora and Golspie, and motorhome support in Bonar Bridge and Helmsdale.