The challenges of dealing with soaring visitor numbers, traffic problems, parking needs and the shortage of public toilets at beauty spots in Skye were described yesterday (Saturday March 18th) at the first meeting of skyeconnect, the new destination organisation for Skye and the surrounding areas.
Those attending heard how making provision for these visitors - who were being criticised by local people on public health and traffic safety grounds - was not part of the remit of the regional administrations or public sector bodies.
And Hugh Ross, of the Staffin Community Trust, pictured above, and Nick Duffill of the Minginish Community Hall Association, explained how their organisations - although set up for different purposes originally - were now shouldering the responsibility of trying to provide better facilities.
The issues centre on the overwhelming growth in visitor numbers to the Storr and to the Fairy Pools. Hugh Ross explained that the Staffin Community Trust originated in 1994 because members of the local community council were concerned that it was the only part of Skye and Lochalsh that had suffered population decline in the 1991 census. Since then the trust has attracted £1.5 million of inward investment to a variety of projects. Hugh is the only full-time member of staff although they are looking to recruit another - there are more than 90 members of the trust - almost one in five of the Staffin population is a member of the trust.
He explained how the Storr attracts Hollywood location scouts and is used to market Scotland right across the globe. The Storr project has been several years in the making and the trust has recently bid to buy land which is owned by Highland Council at the Storr through an "asset transfer request" in order to provide car parking with more than 100 spaces and visitor facilities, including toilets and interpretation facilities. It is hoped to charge fees for the car parking and use the income to maintain the facilities and generate additional employment.
There are official figures for visitors to the Storr tallied by automatic counters at the gate - in 2004 there were 50,000 people who walked up the Storr and then last year there were 150,000 visitors. One day last year there 140/150 vehicles counted at the existing site, parked along both sides of the main road.
And for Staffin 70 per of those visitors travel further north to see other attractions like the Lealt Waterfall, the Kilt Rock, the Staffin Beach and the Quiraing. In Staffin there are 72 tourism related businesses. "The trust is very keen to enhance the experience at the Storr."
The local community had been shown to be very supportive of the Trust taking ownership of the site - more than 50 percent of the population responded to a survey and of those, 85 per cent were in favour. In terms of visitors, surveys showed that people came to the Storr from every continent - and travelled to the site from as far away as Fort William.
Nick Duffil of the Minginish Community Hall Association said the issues described for the Storr were almost the same at the Fairy Pools. Five years ago you could go to the Fairy Pools out of season and not see anybody else, now the car parks are overflowing every day. The promotion of Skye and the Fairy Pools had been extremely successful - but what that meant was that facilities designed for a few dozen people a day were now receiving more than 100,000 a year. "People were now parking anywhere they could." No organisation had responsibility for the problem - not Forest Enterprise, nor Highland Council, nor the local estate. The local community was "the stakeholder of last resort." It could access funds which others could not. The association had only just developed from running the community hall to becoming more of a community trust with the Fairy Pools being its flagship project. "It's in everybody's interest that people have a good experience when they go there."
Nick Duffill (pictured above ) said they had had great support from Highland Council, from Forest Enterprise and the Scottish Land Fund - and also from some of the tour bus operators who recognised that it was important that the Fairy Pools be a sustainable attraction.
For Highland Council, Colin Simpson, the council's Principal Tourism and Film Officer, said that they were working on one-off projects like improving the facilities at the Fairy Pools. He pointed out the Council had spent money at The Storr to provide improvements - work on paths had cost £140,000; the lay-by extension was £74,000; and £38,000 had been spent on regenerating the woodland. Another area they concentrated on was the visits of cruise ships to Portree where the port was run by Highland Council. There were 31 cruise ships expected in Portree this year - a slight increase on last year - and they also had four booked for Kyle of Lochalsh, five for Raasay and one for Uig, although these were smaller vessels.