VISITScotland chief Mike Cantlay says he does not believe that the proliferation of wind farms across the landscape of the Borders is harming the region’s ability to attract tourists.
Speaking to TheSouthern about the prospects for the country’s tourism industry from VisitScotland’s Year of Natural Scotland 2013, the third of four years of so-called ‘focus’ years which feature major visitor attraction events, the organisation’s chairman said the year-long programme of events would provide a chance to highlight Scotland’s great natural assets and for tourism-related businesses in areas like the Borders to tap into that.
The Year of Natural Scotland aims to raise awareness of Scotland as a place of outstanding natural beauty and to encourage visitors to enjoy the landscape responsibly, for example, by choosing accommodation providers with green policies, exploring the landscape by foot or by bike, and making the most of resources in local communities.
It also aims to promote Scotland’s outdoors as a stunning and easily accessible place for active pursuits, and as the perfect stage for sporting and other outdoors events and festivals and ensure the country’s natural heritage is promoted at a range of existing events.
Visitors are also invited to observe the wildlife in natural habitats and efforts are under way to promote the links between Scottish art and nature.
VisitScotland wants the initiative to build on the momentum generated by Homecoming Scotland 2009 as the country journeys toward 2014 when the nation will play host to another Homecoming year, the Ryder Cup and the Commonwealth Games.
Mr Cantlay told TheSouthern the Borders could benefit from the Year of Natural Scotland as much as any other part of the country.
He said: “Businesses out there, in areas like the Borders, can exploit this to their advantage.
“Some people might think it’s always all about Glasgow, Edinburgh and its festival and so on, but something like this – the Year of Natural Scotland – is perfect for the Borders and local tourism businesses to exploit.”
Mr Cantlay admitted the last few years had seen difficult times for many in the tourism sector.
He told us: “There has been a tough trading environment out there in recent years and, as such, 2013 will give a focus to get people out there, hopefully many from Scotland too, enjoying the natural assets and attractions the country has to offer.
“So many Scots have not seen all of Scotland and this initiative provides a great opportunity to get them out and visiting places like the Borders.
“In the Borders, you have world-class facilities, like the mountain biking at Glentress, which is absolutely tremendous and I was delighted to see approval granted recently for the bike uplift near Innerleithen.
“There is so much to see, right here on our own doorstep and, hopefully, the Year of Natural Scotland will provide a way of businesses being able to fill those gaps early in the season.
“And the Borders is magical country, but an area so many Scots have never explored and, yes, the region will be featured in our new promotion campaigns for the Year of Natural Scotland.”
Mr Cantlay also highlighted the new visitor centre at Abbotsford as another example of a great local asset, along with the nearby Melrose Abbey, Traquair House, Melrose rugby sevens and the local common ridings and other summer festivals, saying all these could benefit from the initiatives planned for 2013.
Quizzed on the controversial topic of wind farms and recent claims that the Borders was now at saturation point for turbines, with some polls showing visitors were less keen on areas with large numbers of wind farms, Mr Cantlay was upbeat.
He did agree the subject of wind farms was a “very emotive” issue in the tourism industry, but told us: “All the research I have seen so far suggests, by and large, that tourists aren’t particularly anxious about wind farms.
“There are suggestions that a number of people are actually attracted to visit Scotland because of the country’s green energy targets.
“It’s a bit of a balance, I suppose. Figures I’ve recently seen showed that something like 83 per cent of people were not particularly affected by wind farms when it came to going on holiday.
“Other government agencies such as Scottish Natural Heritage has landscape as one of its statutory responsibilities, while local authorities look after planning policy and we are always mindful of what they are doing.”
But Mr Cantlay was soon back on his main theme of what VisitScotland has termed the “winning years”, involving events such as the London Olympics, Ryder Cup, Commonwealth Games and the release of the Disney hit animated movie set in Scotland, Brave.
“These are the ‘winning years’, and, despite the tough economic times, we have to seize the opportunities when they come our way,” he added.
Commenting on Mr Cantlay’s remarks, Scottish Borders councillor Stuart Bell (Tweeddale East, SNP) said he had seen the studies commissioned by VisitScotland which showed there was little or no impact on tourist numbers by wind farms.
“It’s something that is very difficult to assess. If you ask someone from Odense in Denmark [the location of much turbine construction], where I have been, and ask what they think about turbines, they’ll have a very different view than someone from London.
“Personally, I feel Scottish Borders Council’s planning policy and the supplementary guidance on cumulative impact is the right way to deal with things.”