by David Gibson, Chief Officer, Mountaineering Council of Scotland
No government would risk damaging Scotland’s £4.5bn tourism industry on the basis of a couple of questionable opinion polls – or would it? Worryingly that’s exactly what seems to be happening in the debate about whether the rapid proliferation of wind farms will affect tourism.
It’s an issue that matters – get things wrong and there could be severe consequences with the loss of long-term sustainable tourism jobs in remote and fragile communities. Even worse, our reputation as a high-quality destination could be undermined and that’s of critical importance as Scotland is not somewhere that competes on price.
The imminent publication of the results of the parliamentary inquiry into the Scottish Government’s renewables targets offers an ideal opportunity to look at how best to balance the need for clean energy with the protection of our landscapes. One of the most important forums where people could hold meaningful discussions on wind farms, tourism and natural heritage is the SNP’s forthcoming conference in Perth. Yet the concern is that so many people have now adopted entrenched positions that they won’t listen to each other and just endlessly repeat the same tired lines. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland wants to encourage a more constructive approach.
Here’s an example of the current problem. Government politicians tend to dismiss any suggestion that large numbers of 135m high turbines, serviced by miles of 6m-wide tracks in previously unspoilt areas, will put off visitors. They rely on two rather thin pieces of work in order to claim that wind farms won’t substantially affect tourism.
The first, by Riddington et al, was published in 2008 (when wind farms were still a relative rarity so much of the report was conjectural) and questioned just 370 people. It concluded that hill walkers were more favourable towards wind farms than tourists in general. Just 70 hikers were questioned and there was no statistically significant difference between their responses and anyone else’s.
VisitScotland research is also quoted (cited as 2012, but it appears to be a 2011 survey) and there are serious questions about the methodology and demographics. Fergus Ewing welcomed the results of this survey saying: “wind farms do not affect the choice of eight in ten tourists to visit Scotland and most people do not feel wind farms spoil the countryside”. Ouch! Even if this were true, most businesses would be very worried about upsetting one in five of their customers. And what of the 30% who agreed that “one of the main attractions of wind farms is that they are … few and far between”?
Each month developers and large power companies put in ever more inappropriate applications for bigger and bigger schemes. The Monadhliath Mountains have been inundated by seven applications which would mean at least 256 turbines creating what has become known as the “ring of steel” around superb wild upland between Loch Ness and the Cairngorms National Park. The Cairngorms National Park itself faces being surrounded by turbines as tall as any Scottish skyscraper. Developers also want to erect 17 turbines on the slopes of Ben Wyvis, a celebrated Ross-shire mountain, within sight of Inverness.
VisitScotland says 58% of tourists give scenery and landscape as their top reason for coming to Scotland. Is this what they want at the heart of the Highlands? These days they can easily go elsewhere, and perhaps more cheaply. It would be interesting to know if VisitScotland itself thinks that the huge acceleration of applications is a boon. Its website has been encouraging travel operators to head this way for the 2013 Year of Natural Scotland because “your clients can escape into the unspoilt wilderness … taking in our majestic but accessible mountains.” And it’s not just holidaymakers who may be put off; there are also the day trippers who contribute £6.2bn to our economy each year.
Scotland needs to get smart about where wind farms should and shouldn’t be allowed. Our wild landscapes are diminishing by the year; what remains is precious and deserves protection rather than industrialisation. The MCofS believes this is best done by stopping future developments in special areas like around our highest peaks, the Munros and Corbetts, and allowing them to remain as open spaces of beauty – the very soul of Scotland’s natural heritage.
The Scottish Government needs to get people round the table to discuss better policies for the future. Such discussions would also benefit from the commissioning of serious research (preferably not by Scottish academics already closely linked to wind farm developers) into the potential impact of wind farms on tourism.