Popularity of this beautiful island is now causing concern. Is the Isle of Skye too busy to visit?
Recent articles suggest that the Isle of Skye has too many tourists, negatively impacting the island and spoiling the visitor experience. Wilderness Scotland Green Team member David takes a frank look at the issue and explains how Wilderness Scotland is addressing it.
The Isle of Skye is an island of extremes. On my first visits there, as a younger and bolder version of myself, I discovered this in the famous mountains of Skye – The Black Cuillin.
The Cuillin – as they’re known – are a volcanic ring of dark jagged peaks straight out of fantasy. Black stone, knife edge ridge lines, infinite boulders and scree, all rising straight from the salty sea into the wild Atlantic winds. One of the places you tend to categorise as ‘dramatic.’ For lovers of the hills and mountains of Scotland they hold a near legendary allure.
I learned through repeated visits to Skye that it seems never to have a middle ground. The weather was always, without exception, either astonishingly wonderful or apocalyptic, but always impressive. Days spent in the Cuillin were either dream-like journeys into a land of wonder or terrifying reminders that pointy mountains are not places that tolerate fools. And the rest of the island was like that too. Untamed. Elemental. Wild.
Over the past few years Scotland has featured in several high profile publications, blogs and news sites as a must-do. In 2017 Rough Guides had their readers vote on the most beautiful country in the world to visit, and Scotland took the top spot. And Skye in particular often features in those articles as the number one Scottish location.
And why not? It’s that quality of wildness, of drama, and the island’s reputation of great hospitality that has made it the crown of Scottish tourism. Everywhere you go in the world people have heard of the Isle of Skye. Most want to visit, and many do. In fact, the Isle of Skye has never been so popular.
But has the islands success become a curse? In an article for CNN, Joe Minihane has named the Isle of Skye as one of the world’s top tourist destinations to avoid in 2018, saying that “the infrastructure of Scotland’s largest island* creaked under the pressure as thousands of tourists in coaches and cars plied its narrow lanes.” In summary, CNN are saying that the island has become too busy, and they’re not the only ones.
A bit harsh to judge a whole island, but here’s the question. Are they right?
Kate Forbes, the MSP (Member of Scottish Parliament) for Skye, doesn’t think so. She was forceful in her rejection of CNNs assessment, saying: “I fundamentally disagree with CNN’s list of places to avoid because Skye is definitely open for business. Last summer attracted thousands of visitors to the island because of its beauty, delicious food and drink and warm welcome. I know that there are businesses throughout the island that are preparing for another season.”
Thing is, ‘open for business’ doesn’t mean CNN are wrong. Problems do arise when demand for business exceeds its capacity. When pressure on the infrastructure of what was a quiet, rural island is greater than it can carry you have snarl ups. When numbers of people parking and hiking grow too fast, damage to wild places becomes unavoidable. You get erosion, and people leave waste behind and take away souvenirs they should leave.
“Skye does have its share of problems”
I’m going to walk out on a limb here. Out on a limb because it’s my job to attract people to Scotland. But I’m going to say that I agree with CNN. At least to a point. I’m not saying stay away, but Skye does have its share of problems – I’ve seen them for myself. I have seen the parking jams at the beauty spots. I’ve dragged dead sheep off the road. I’ve picked up forlorn and tired hitchhikers who didn’t book ahead and couldn’t find anywhere to stay. And I’ve seen places that I used to enjoy in quiet reverence become the latest backdrop for people’s instagrams – the latest tick on their bucket list.
So here we have a problem. Because we’re in the business of bringing people to this wonderful part of the world so they can enjoy it. But by doing so we’re contributing to a problem. Aren’t we?
Well, let’s keep in mind that we’re also bringing benefit. Tourism, far from being a curse, can and should be one of the best things that can ever happen to a place by positively impacting the local economy, the community, the environment, and the people who visit. If it’s done right.
We’re being presented with two diametrically opposed visions of the island – typical for this place of extremes. On the one hand an idyllic wilderness location. On the other, an overrun tourist trap. Which is it? The truth is somewhere in between, and finding that elusive middle ground is the real trick for tour operators like us.
There are problems. No-one should deny that, including Kate Forbes MSP. And yes, we do contribute a little bit to each of them. Traffic. Crowds. Erosion. Pollution. But fortunately by following principles of sustainable tourism there is already a positive way forward for us and the island.
In the case of Skye, we’ve already redesigned our hiking itinerary there to reduce negative impacts and increase positive ones, and the result is not only better for the island but also an improved experience for our visitors. This is the kind of thinking we constantly try to apply to all our trips.
Skye’s beauty spots have become crowded, so we’re going with small group sizes and choosing hikes that are no less beautiful but less well known – the advantage of local knowledge. The roads are busy, so we’re spending less time in the car and more time walking. We use great accommodations in quieter parts of the island to spread the economic benefit beyond the towns and reduce pressure on them. Where trails are getting eroded we help fund local conservation groups who repair pathways. While most people drive around Skye in a hurry and only visit a handful of ‘iconic’ places, we take longer, go slower and open our eyes to the beauty that is all around. We give you and the island time to enjoy each other in silence if that’s what you want.
In short, we’re doing everything we can to ensure that a Wilderness Scotland trip to Skye is still a trip to the wilderness, and always will be. But the bottom line is going to lie with you – the visitor. If you’re concerned you may not enjoy your experience because it’s too busy, or you’re not sure you can visit in good conscience, then I assure you that you can. I simply urge you to look carefully at how you travel. I’m not saying it has to be with us. But if you want to come then choose an operator who is really doing their utmost to ensure that your visit is a positive thing for the island as well as you. I guarantee that if you do that then not only will your trip be a great thing for Skye, but also for you.
*By the way – it’s not Scotland’s largest island. Take a bow, Isle of Lewis.