Tayside and Central Scotland

Heart 200: New road trip route paved with good intentions

Camper van on NC500
Image caption Some locals feel the NC500 has brought increased traffic and tourism with little benefit

A new tourist route has been launched in Scotland.

The Heart 200 aims to replicate the success of the North Coast 500, which has seen a surge in tourism to Caithness and Sutherland.

The trail will link Loch Lomond and Cairngorm National Parks via the Trossachs and highland Perthshire.

Opponents of the plan say the NC500 has brought increased traffic and tourism with little benefit to locals.

But Heart 200 director Robbie Cairns, who is the proprietor of the Fortingall Hotel in Perthshire, defended the new plan when he spoke to The Nine.

"They are very different routes," he insists, arguing that there is far more established tourist infrastructure in the heartland than in the far north.

In the far north of the country they are watching with interest.

In Inchnadamph Sue Agnew has seen both positive and negative effects of the NC500.

Sue Agnew
Image caption Sue Agnew is concerned increased traffic is making the job of the recue team more difficult

Ms Agnew leads the Assynt Mountain Rescue Team, covering the whole of Caithness and Sutherland, a vast area.

She says the increased traffic on the roads is hampering the ability of her team members to respond to emergencies, on average adding around 30 minutes to their muster time.

"Particularly on the single-track roads even if we stick on the blue lights often [tourists] don't understand that pulling over is the main thing to do," she says.

Ms Agnew says she is delighted that more and more people are travelling to see the splendour of the north west but says there has been a sharp increase in traffic and in crashes on the road.

A car crashes off the single-track road
Image caption The single-track roads are problematic for some tourists

We recorded one ourselves on the twisting Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle) which winds up and up and then finally down into Applecross in Wester Ross.

A Dutch couple in a hired Range Rover on the second day of their first holiday to Scotland had put one wheel on the verge to let a vehicle pass when the car tipped over the edge and rolled.

They were lucky to escape with nothing more than shock and sore necks.

'Just drive slow'

The passing place the driver should have been able to use was occupied by bikers who had stopped to take photographs.

"We've certainly seen some pretty crazy driving which just is not worth it," says Ms Agnew. "Just drive slow and enjoy the landscape."

Such advice is taken by a large number of the tens of thousands of tourists who trundle around the 500-mile loop every year.

Hannah Smith
Image caption Hannah Smith picks litter from the beaches of Durness

But Hannah Smith is worried about the impact of that tourism.

Like many people in rural Scotland Ms Smith wears many hats, one of which is to pick up litter from the stunning beaches of Durness.

'Struggling to cope'

"It looks clean," she says, "but the more you look the more you find."

The majority of the rubbish is washed in from the ocean, she says, but some comes from tourists.

"It's very frustrating because you go from day to day and you know you've been there and cleaned a day or so ago and there's more."

Ms Smith is also worried that small communities including hers are struggling to cope with the boom.

"We've lost our tourist information centre," she says "and we're looking like we're going to lose our cash machine in the village."

Along the route though tourists we met seemed delighted with their choice of holiday and happy with the facilities on offer.

"It's beautiful," says Melissa Gray-Cheape from Forfar, Angus who is travelling with her husband James and their two children, Alexander, eight, and Anastasia, five.

The Gray-Cheape family
Image caption The Gray-Cheape family are enjoying all the route has to offer for a family holiday

"Doing it in a camper van was my idea of hell," she smiles, "but I have to say I'm a convert now.

Mr Gray-Cheape agrees. "It's been an absolutely magical journey that we've had," he says, promising to return.

There is a heated debate along the route about how much tourists are actually contributing to the local economy.

West of Thurso, in a cafe in Bettyhill, we meet Noela Irwin from New Zealand. She has been here before, seven years ago, with her husband John.

Now, the couple say, they have noticed a dramatic change.

Last time, says Ms Irwin, "we hired a campervan and we were probably the only one here. Now, there are campervans everywhere parked up on roadsides and beaches."

Kiwis Noela and John Irwin
Image caption Kiwis Noela and John see a big difference since their last visit seven years ago

Some critics worry that too many of those tourists are self-sufficient, not spending money in restaurants and cafes.

There is a similar debate back home, says Mr Irwin.

"We have a big influx of campervans into New Zealand too and a lot of concerns are very much the same with local authorities and infrastructure."

But, he adds, "you're providing as many services, if not more, than New Zealand."

Joanna Mackenzie isn't worried about the NC500.

In eight years her Bettyhill cleaning company, Clean Bees, has gone from two members of staff to 50 at the height of summer.

The accommodation she cleans is as busy as ever, she says, but with more tourists making shorter stays, which means more cleaning.

"It was busy prior to having a label but now that it's here we definitely have more turnovers, more staff needed to do those turnovers."

Has the NC500 brought money into the local economy? "Absolutely without a shadow of a doubt," she replies.

Image caption The tourist route has seen a boom in campervan holidaymakers

Back in Perthshire though there are concerns about what is about to happen with the Heart 200, the new trail winding in and out of the county, through Scotland's heartland.

On the banks of Loch Tay, Fiona Ballantyne of the Fearnan Village Association says "I think at the moment the people who come here come for peace and quiet and because it's off the beaten track. If you put it on the track you basically change the nature of the place."

Fellow Fearnan resident Jenny Penfold is also fighting the plans which are being put forward as a private initiative albeit with the backing of some public agencies.

More people doesn't mean more money, she says, predicting that tourists will rush through the 200-mile route in a day.

Tourists soak up the road trip experience
Image caption Tourists soak up the road trip experience

"Our feeling is that there are enough lessons that could have been learned from North Coast 500 to actually do some preparatory work before bringing this forward," adds Ms Ballantyne.

Mr Cairns of Heart 200 disagrees. He argues that visitors will branch off from the core route to visit tourist attractions and hotels throughout Perthshire and Stirlingshire.

And not a moment too soon, he says, as bookings for August are "well down, as much as 50 per cent."

Figures for tourism in the area are in dispute but Mr Cairns insists Brexit and the success of the North Coast 500 are having a negative impact.

"And that," he says, "is quite horrifying."

Bikers on the NC500
Image caption Not just for campervans: Bikers enjoy the scenic route too

Watch James Cook's full report on BBC Scotland's The Nine, available on the BBC iPlayer

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