North Coast 500 Visitor Survey Opens Road to Recovery for North Highland Tourism

Over three quarters of people who put their travels plans on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic are expected to return to the iconic North Coast 500 (NC500) after the go-ahead is given by the Scottish Government, according to a new visitor survey.

A record 4,000 people from across the UK, Europe and the rest of the world responded to the NC500 visitor survey between Friday 5th June and Friday 12th June, with a clear majority (80 per cent) stating that the pandemic has had no impact on their desire to explore the North Highland tourist route in the next six to 12 months and beyond.

Only 20 per cent of respondents have had to cancel their visit to the NC500, but only a very small proportion (six per cent) are no longer planning to visit the region at all due the crisis.

With international tourism unlikely to return until at least late in 2021, there is an increasing likelihood that more Scots than ever before may well follow the lead of tens of thousands of visitors who have already travelled the 516-mile route.

Significant change in how Scots and other UK nations holiday as a result of Covid-19 could result in a staycation boom, helping to ensure the success of the NC500, businesses and communities along the route continues through challenging times.

Encouragingly, the survey suggests that the average number of days people plan to travel the NC500 post-lockdown has increased from nine to 11 days, indicating that people are committing to a significant holiday on the NC500. 

Serviced hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs continue to be the most popular choice for accommodation on the route (53 per cent collectively).

There has been no significant increase in the number of people planning to visit the region by motorhome, campervan or caravan, but there is a slight increase in those interested in camping, glamping and self-catering, largely due to visitors wanting to stay in self-contained accommodation.

The number of planned car journeys has decreased slightly, but intended travel by motorbike or bicycle remains unchanged from previous surveys.

While the domestic market is expected to be the key driver for economic recovery in the North Highlands post-lockdown (88 per cent), many visitors will be looking to tourism and hospitality businesses to adopt new measures to prioritise public health and safety, reassure people and restore confidence.

Suggested measures include continued social distancing, hand-sanitising stations, contact-free methods of check-in and payment, in-room dining options, as well as certification that premises adhere to minimum hygiene standards through an industry-led ’safe tourism’ initiative.

NC500 has now launched a series of webinars to actively engage businesses to help address any public safety concerns surrounding the re-opening the North Highlands to visitors this summer and beyond.

Participants include representatives from VisitScotland, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, Highland Council and Police Scotland.

Scotland’s world-leading NC500 tourist route marks its fifth anniversary this summer.

What began as an initiative to bring some fresh opportunities to the area was last year estimated to have boosted the economy by £22.89 million and created around 179 full-time jobs, but all this is now at risk.

Commenting on the results of the NC500 visitor survey, Tom Campbell, Executive Chair of NC500 Ltd, said:

“It’s extremely encouraging to see that a significant number of visitors are already rescheduling their plans to visit the NC500 this summer, into 2021 and beyond.

“This really is a positive sign for the re-emergence of the tourism industry in the North Highlands.

“The breath-taking natural scenery, wide-open green spaces, majestic mountain ranges, sandy beaches and rugged coastline of the NC500 are key factors that will draw visitors back to the region and away from larger towns and cities after lockdown.

“We’re expecting to see more UK visitors heading to Scotland and driving and cycling will be the way people will want to take their holidays.

“As we all begin to think about what life might look like beyond the coronavirus pandemic, we know that the stunning natural landscape of NC500 remains reassuringly unchanged and will continue to inspire people from around Scotland, the rest of the UK and beyond when it’s safe travel.

“As we start to plan for the reopening of tourism in the North Highlands, NC500 will continue to work to help deliver a balance between economic recovery and public safety.”

Just last month, over two thirds of the tourism firms on the NC500 confirmed that they are set to re-open and welcome visitors back when it is safe to travel in response to the organisation’s coronavirus business impact survey.

A record 185 tourism businesses from across Inverness-shire, the Black Isle, Easter Ross, Wester Ross, Sutherland and Caithness responded to the survey between 14th and 26th May.

Accommodation providers, food and drink outlets, retail operators, outdoor and visitor attractions hope that the easing of lockdown measures in Scotland within the coming weeks will mean that the North Highlands could see a return of the tourism season before the end of this year.

A further 18 per cent of respondents hope to re-open in 2021.

Many businesses are already taking the steps to implement the necessary health and safety measures that visitors are now expecting.