A new initiative aimed at encouraging visitors to remain in the north for longer has been launched by the founders of the North Coast 500 (NC500).
Highland Time, as it will be known, has been designed to encourage visitors to extend their stay in the region by increasing the offering “off-grid” to get people out and about onto walks, waterways and other attractions.
Its official launch took place yesterday at a conference to promote responsible tourism at the Achnagairn Estate, situated at the beginning of NC500 by Kirkhill.
A study undertaken by the Moffat Centre for Tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University – fronted by Professor John Lennon – estimated the NC500 boosted the local economy by £22.9million over the past 12 months.
The report, which was commissioned by North Highland Initiative and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), also found that the iconic route has created 180 full-time equivalent jobs in the same period.
David Whiteford, chairman of the North Highland Initiative – who organised the conference alongside FSB Scotland – welcomed the “positive” atmosphere around the conference yesterday as he shared with businesses and interested parties the details of the Highland Time initiative.
He said: “It’s about getting people to stay in one place for longer. We are calling it Highland time – take your time, take Highland time. Come and experience not just the scenery but all the things you can see and really immerse yourself in the culture.”
Mr Whiteford hailed the opportunity the new initiative presents for business opportunities. However, he called for further support to be delivered to ensure infrastructure along the route is enhanced to support its future growth.
He added: “We need the Scottish Government to support us. We are growing the economy up here which means they are recruiting more taxpayers and we would like to see more investment in the area. We want to be able to keep the population here and to grow it.
“So we need the roads and the railway infrastructure to get people to the start of the route to improve.
“My view and I think the view of lots of other economists is that the Highlands will be at its best when it has got a lot of micro-businesses, whereas you get the big-ticket employers like oil and gas but they are not here forever, and if we do this right NC500 can be here forever just like Route 66.”
Professor Lennon yesterday praised the marketing of the route, which has allowed visitors to become the “ambassadors” for the experience, whilst keeping costs relatively low.
He praised the use of a dedicated app for the route, as well as social media which has allowed the NC500 to generate a global reach of 3.3billion in 2018.
Professor Lennon said: “The big thing is the increased dwell time.
“People are staying for longer – the average stay was two-and-a-half days, now it is six days but they are staying longer across the year and the season has extended from four or five months to closer to double that.
“That influx creates year-round jobs and year-round jobs give young people – those under 30 – a reason to stay.
“These kinds of successful economic developments, without an awful lot of investment, help to turn those dismal images of Highland depopulation which have characterised this part for some time.”