12 years as a Sustainable Destination: the Cairngorms National Park tourism strategy

Lochan Uaine (The Green Loch), Glenmore Forest, Aviemore

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The Cairngorms National Park was first awarded in 2005 with the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism in Protected Areas. 12 years later, we’ve asked Heather Trench, Sustainable Tourism Officer for the Park Authority to look back at main challenges and achievements since they became a Sustainable Destination

Heather has been living and working in the Cairngorms for over 15 years and joined the Park Authority in 2004, so has now been involved in the Charter application process three times. A self-confessed data nerd, she particularly enjoys monitoring indicators, and the satisfaction of seeing real progress reflected in visitor research.

National Parks came late to Scotland.  That’s perhaps surprising, given that it’s a country synonymous with a stunning natural landscape, and especially surprising given the Scottish roots of John Muir, the ‘father’ of the National Parks system.  But we got there in the end, and in 2003 the Cairngorms was designated – the largest, highest and most northerly National Park in the UK.

What changes have we noticed since working with the Charter?

For us, that’s difficult to say. The Charter has always been at the heart of our work on tourism, and we were the first National Park in the UK to be accredited, in 2005.  We were delighted to be successfully re-accredited in 2010 and are currently going through the application process for the 3rd time.

So why has the Charter been so valuable a model for our work on tourism? Well, unlike most National Park Authorities, we don’t own any land.  We don’t own or manage any visitor centres.  We don’t run our own ranger service.  So for us, partnership working isn’t optional, it’s the only way forward. In the early days, the Charter provided a model for bringing together a wide range of public, private and third sector partners and, importantly, gave them a clear set of principles to work with.

Investing together: the Cairngorms Business Partnership

Over the last 12 years we’ve seen substantial progress.  The Cairngorms Business Partnership was set up as a private-sector Destination Organisation whose boundary mirrors the Park boundary. Membership is currently at an all-time high of over 350 businesses and business confidence is at record levels.  We’ve installed National Park interpretation at 14 information centers and ranger bases.  There’s been investment of over £5million in path networks to encourage active travel on foot or by bike.  We have secured a £2million Landscape Partnership Project to develop an economically fragile area of the Cairngorms.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been bumps along the way. Our Sustainable Tourism Forum has morphed several times as we try to find the right balance of membership – a group that is inclusive to all interests, but also focussed enough to deliver.  We have also in the past struggled to enthuse the industry about a sustainable tourism strategy & action plan amongst a plethora of other strategies.  This time round we have focused on the practical outcomes and produced a much more succinct sustainable tourism action plan for the industry.

We’ve seen the success of our work to date reflected through our research.  Since 2005, we’ve seen an 18% increase in visitor numbers, but a 24% increase in visitor days, as tourists spend longer here.  Crucially growth has been highest in the traditionally quieter months of the year.  Our visitor survey tells us that visitors now rate their experience more highly, are more likely to be aware that they are visiting a National Park, and are more likely to feel that National Park is well cared for.

Cairngorms national park, scotland, charter

‘Still’ Cairngorms Snow Roads Scenic Route

The future at a glance

Of course, we are not complacent, and there is plenty of work ahead of us.  Priorities for the next 5 years include developing a Visitor Giving scheme to support conservation and recreation work, and also setting up a new volunteering programme.  We plan to roll-out our ‘Make It Yours’ programme of training for front-line tourism staff in businesses and visitor centres.

We’re also delighted to have been selected by VisitScotland as a pilot area for a new ‘Total Quality Destination’ project which will involve working with TripAdvisor and others to improve the customer journey.  And we will better spread the economic benefits of tourism around the National Park in part by promoting a new ‘Snow Roads’ scenic route to encourage visitors to explore some of the less-visited areas of the Cairngorms.

It’s been a busy 12 years since we were first awarded the Charter, but it’s been good to look back at what we have all achieved. That’s another benefit of the Charter process and particularly the verification visit: 

a chance for all the partners involved to reflect on progress through the experienced eyes of someone new to the area.

We are still awaiting a decision on re-accreditation, but hope to be part of the Charter Parks Network for many years to come.

Article issued by Heather Trench

Cairngorms National Park

The Cairngorms National Park is one of the 157 Sustainable Destinations awarded with the EU Charter for Sustainable Tourism in Protected Areas. Learn more about the Charter.