At the beginning of the summer I welcomed new figures from Historic Environment Scotland that showed more than 41,500 people visited their staffed sites in Orkney between April-June 2016 and April-June 2017.
The Broch of Gurness proved most popular, with more than 4000 admissions representing a 36% jump in visits to the site.
Maeshowe attracted 7597 visitors, a rise of 14% on the previous year.
Many of these visitors come on cruise liners, and I have been reading and hearing about the debate surrounding that rise, with an estimated 141,000 liner passengers due to disembark in Orkney over the 2017 season, up from 41,500 just five years ago.
On Monday evening, the BBC featured Orkney as the official cruise ship capital of the UK. While the documentary – When the Boat Comes In – was overwhelmingly positive in its view of how folk in Orkney come together to cope with the liner passengers for their few hours ashore, there are certainly concerns that need to be addressed, not least the impact on the most popular sites, and on the day-to-day lives of islanders.
I am very aware that tourism is booming, and I look forward to being among thousands of folk flocking to the county for the agricultural show season next week.
The passengers bring an obvious boost to certain sectors of the Orkney economy. However, we need to ensure that the lives of the folk for whom Orkney is home all year round – and I am thinking in particular of the county’s farmers as they go about their daily work on increasingly busy roads – are not adversely affected.
Sustainability needs to be at the heart of this tourism boom, and I am heartened that Orkney Islands Council appears to be taking the need for managing the growing visitor numbers seriously – along with HIE they have commissioned a study to look at ways to manage tourism volume.
Of course many areas of Scotland are busy with visitors in the summer months and it may be that Orkney – like some of these hot spots – needs to consider the introduction of a “tourist tax” in order to pay for new facilities to cope with growing numbers.
The Isle of Arran runs a voluntary scheme which works through the Arran Trust – the island’s visitor gifting scheme.
A mandatory scheme would require a change in law from the Scottish Government and so far there is no government support. Indeed, several national tourist organisations are against any additional cost because the UK is already ranked 140th out of 141 in the world for price competitiveness, mainly because of having the highest VAT rate in Europe and not helped by one of the highest rates of Air Passenger Duty globally. Scotland is already expensive to visit!
Whatever new measures are put in place to ensure Orkney’s tourism growth is sustainable, I will be keen to see the Scottish Government play a positive role.
Local MSP Maree Todd SNP writes a fortnightly column in The Orkney News