A new study has revealed the “absolutely incredible” impact of the North Coast 500 route on tourism and business in the Highlands.
The first in-depth survey of people who have embarked on the spectacular 516-mile road trip has underlined its growing importance to the local economy.
Interviews with more than 800 users of the route found that 87% said they were “very satisfied” with the experience and 92% would recommend the NC500 to others.
Asked if they would make the journey again, 70% said they “definitely will” and 23% said they “probably will”.
The study also revealed that two-thirds of those who made the trip spent five days or more travelling along the route, which starts and ends in Inverness.
Meanwhile, key tourist attractions and businesses also confirmed the “excitement and buzz” growing in the north as a result of the NC500’s popularity.
Dunrobin Castle in Golspie reported that this year it had “smashed” its two decade-old record for visitors, and attributed the rise to the NC500.
Visitor numbers to the Dunnet Bay Distillers have increased five-fold in the last year, prompting the Rock Rose Gin producers to open-up on Saturdays and accelerate plans to build a shop at the site.
The NC500 was officially launched in March last year by the North Highland Initiative in an effort to develop sustainable economic growth across the north Highlands.
Highlighted on TV shows such as Top Gear, the loop around the north of the region was quickly dubbed as Scotland’s answer to the famous “Route 66” in the US, and was recently named ‘Destination Specialist of the Year’ at the 2017 Luxury Travel Guide Awards.
David Whiteford, chairman on North Highland Initiative, said: “We commissioned this study to get the views of those who have experienced the route since its launch in 2015.
“The results are very encouraging and we’re delighted that so many people who have already completed the route would definitely do it again and, most importantly, recommend it to others.”
Mr Whiteford added that plans were being drawn up to find more ways for the region to cash-in on its success, and revealed that a full economic impact study would be carried out.
The journey can be undertaken clockwise or anti-clockwise and takes in the stunning scenery of the east, north and west Highlands.
Tony Story, managing director of the Kingsmills Hotel in Inverness, said that the Highland capital was also witnessing a boost from the NC500, as well as more remote locations.
“There’s definitely been an uplift in the amount of business from motorists,” he said.
“There’s definitely been an increase in the amount of people coming up in supercars, we’ve had Ferraris and Maseratis, a dozen or more supercars.
“The promotion of the NC500 has certainly helped that market. That is definitely what they are doing.
“This has always been a good spot for that kind of activity but the NC500 has pushed it to another level.”
Elspeth Bremner, owner of The Clachan B&B in Wick, said: “Over the last year I have had so many guests stay here who have or are currently doing the North Coast 500 and I can honestly say that every one of them had positive reviews on how enjoyable the trip was or has been.
“I have definitely seen a marked increase in room occupancy rates at The Clachan as a result of the North Coast 500.
“I believe the North Coast 500 gives us a platform to really showcase the north Highlands, and open people’s eyes to what we have here.”
Scott Armstrong, VisitScotland regional partnerships director, said: “Scotland’s very own answer to Route 66, the North Coast 500 has been one of the biggest tourism success stories of recent years.
“This new study shows just how much the route has captured the imagination of visitors around the globe while also providing a fantastic boost to tourism businesses in the Highlands.”
FAST TRACK PLANS
The Caithness-based producers of the award-winning Rock Rose Gin have had to fast-track expansion plans because of the North Coast 500.
Dunnet Bay Distillers said visitor numbers had soared at the site in the last year, and that they were now planning to open a shop this winter to cash-in.
Martin Murray, co-founder and director at the distillers, said: “The North Coast 500 has been absolutely incredible for us here at Dunnet Bay.
“We’ve been trading for two years and therefore we have had one year with and one year without the North Coast 500.
“We have seen a clear increase in the number of people visiting the distillery, from around 20 per week to almost 100.
“Our sales of Rock Rose Gin are also around 10 times that of what we had in our original business plan.
“The success of the route, and the obvious economic benefit it has brought to Dunnet Bay, has given us the confidence to build a shop this winter – something we hadn’t planned for so soon.
“We had a fantastic summer season thanks to the North Coast 500 and have decided to keep our distillery open on Saturdays until Christmas to keep up with visitors who stop off while doing the route.”
Visitor numbers soar
One of the largest castles in the Highlands has witnessed a huge growth in visitor numbers since tourists began flocking to the region for the North Coast 500.
Dunrobin Castle in Golspie, which dates back to the early 1300s and is the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses, has enjoyed its highest number of visitors for two decades.
Scott Morrison, managing director at the castle, said: “In our opinion, the North Coast 500 has been a huge success and we have seen a noticeable increase in visitor numbers to the castle since it launched.
“We are currently around 12,000 ahead of our visitor numbers from this time last year with just under 73,000 people visiting in 2016.
“This has smashed a 20-year-old record for us, and is largely due to the North Coast 500.
“The North Coast 500 has brought excitement and buzz to the Highlands which we haven’t seen before.
“We are now talking to visitors who are doing the route almost on a daily basis.
“It is encouraging to see the difference the North Coast 500 is making to the economy of local communities with many businesses now talking about extending their season thanks to more people than ever visiting the Highlands during the winter months.”
The category A-listed Dunrobin Castle, the family seat of the Clan Sutherland, recently lodged plans to create a