Gruinard Bay by Steven Gourlay Photography Ltd

NEARLY 80 representatives from the across North and North West Highlands’ tourism industries came together last week to discuss how to drive the Wester Ross area towards a more sustainable future.

Held on the 9-10 March at the Gairloch Hotel, ‘Sustain Wester Ross’ was jointly organised by Visit Wester Ross and the Wester Ross UNESCO Biosphere, with an aim to develop the region as the Highlands’ first major sustainable tourism destination.

The two-day event was supported by the University of the Highlands and Islands, The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), the North Highland Initiative and Gairloch High School.

Highlights from the event included a video link presentation with the Snaefellnes region of Iceland; an area which, alongside the North Highlands, has enjoyed a significant increase in tourism over recent years. Delegates were able to learn more about Iceland’s approach to visitor management and examine ways in which similar methods could be activated in the North Highlands.

Other speakers at the two-day event included Green Tourism Ltd and The Scottish Tourism Alliance, with discussions as to how Highland-based UNESCO sites such as the Wester Ross area can deliver a package of sustainable tourism goals.

A talk by Tom Campbell, Chair of the North Coast 500, demonstrated how business across the North Highlands can work together to develop an ethos of sustainability across a diverse range of interests and organisations.

The event was concluded with the presentation of the new Destination Management Plan for the Wester Ross area. This partnership proposal, led by Visit Wester Ross and the Wester Ross UNESCO Biosphere, aims to become a wholly inclusive, long-term project for the area.

Douglas Gibson, Project Co-Ordinator at Visit Wester Ross, said:

“We are delighted with the success of last week’s event, and we hope businesses who attended from across the North Highland region found it a valuable experience. It is more important than ever before to focus on collaboration, working together to share learnings and become more sustainable, as a region.

“I’d like to extend my thanks once again to the team at the Gairloch Hotel for hosting us over the two days; a local business that is clearly undergoing something of a renaissance. We received so many positive comments about the hotel’s friendly staff and their enthusiastic approach to the event, which was wonderful to see.”

David Whiteford, Chair of the North Highland Initiative, said:

“Over the course of our two days at Sustain Wester Ross, it was greatly encouraging to see so much local input. Through our ongoing works with Gairloch High School, the North Highland Initiative played a key part in the use of local produce throughout the event. School pupils impressed everyone in attendance on day one by producing and catering a full lunch menu, with some of the media studies pupils also practising interview skills with a variety of attendees.

“Sustainability in the farming sector was a particularly important topic at the event, including discussion of how cost should not always be the decisive factor in buying produce. The message is clear: if you buy local, you’ll buy sustainably, creating benefits to the local economy and businesses throughout the North Highlands.”

Natasha Hutchison, Co-ordinator of the Wester Ross UNESCO Biosphere, said:

“There has been a tremendous amount of work that has gone into developing the destination management plan, one of the first of its kind in Scotland. It involved many stakeholders, communities and public agencies and we would like to extend our sincere thanks to all who have contributed to the process. Collaboration is key to sustainability, and we look forward to developing future partnerships to ensure Wester Ross is a happy place to live, and to visit.”