By Dr Sarah Crowe
Back in May I was due to give a 5 min presentation at the Sustainable Orkney Conference on the importance of nature in the climate emergency. Unfortunately, Covid-19 cancelled the conference, and whilst the virus has given us a brief respite from the chaos of over-tourism and ecological damage, my fear is that in a desperate bid to get local economies like Orkney back on track that we will find ourselves in a worsening scenario, not better in 2021. I have therefore put my conference words into a longer piece in this article, as I feel that by the time the conference is rescheduled it will be too late.
Covid-19 has highlighted the intrinsic importance of being out in nature as being central to helping our well-being, a wider article in Nature in 2019 showed that just 2 hours of natural connection a week has substantial benefits to our health. This should not seem strange, we have evolved with nature for most of our time on this planet, our ancestors lived amongst it, revered it, were custodians of it, and it is only in our recent human history that we have separated ourselves from it, and become its destroyers.
Covid-19 has offered us a reset button, and I ask that we press it; many more Orkney residents have been out discovering cycling, walking, taking up couch to 5k apps, we need to harness this and not let it become a Covid-19 fad of 2020.
Other parts of the Highlands and Islands are already accepting the green reset challenge to radically rethink their green infrastructure, the question remains, what about Orkney?
Will it remain rooted in damaging over-tourism or will it embrace a cleaner form of tourism, one that benefits the health of people and nature.?
There have been words of hope from the council to move towards a slower tourism based on wellbeing, but words are not action and can quickly be forgotten; my concern is that the green funding for the isles will simply go to energy and industry and we will be no better wellbeing-wise than before the pandemic.
What is Slow Tourism
Slow tourism is a relatively new concept, born out of the idea to ask people to do less during their holiday, to take more time and positively contribute to the local environment. It will involve a major change in Orkney Tourism, one which buses tourists to every ancient site within a day, crowds out small carparks and inundates local communities then disappears.
Slow tourism is not analogous with cruise or coach tourism, but I believe slow tourism has real potential here as well, being an island of creativity; we love arts, crafts, literature and music all essential to wider wellbeing, all good for slowing down. Instead of simply offering visitors products to buy, slow tourism would suggest offering them an experience with it, workshops, crafting experiences, days out painting with a take home memory at the end. These experiences have real value, as people remember the place, the artist, it becomes more than a commercial exchange.
The other part of slow tourism is movement. Orkney is a county that sells itself on its natural landscape and social media is adorned with videos of beaches and sea cliffs; it sells itself as a place for a natural, outdoor based holiday, one where you can abandon the car on arrival. This is not the reality though!
As a non-motorist who enjoys fastpacking (moving fast and light across the landscape) and who cycles most places, truthfully Orkney is for motorists. Many of our core paths are minor roads, that are not safe as people drive at 60mph on them; what actual paths exists are frequently nothing more than ditches alongside fields or narrow strips between a fence and cliff edge or a road verge. We have nothing in the way of cycleways, and very few places for people to stop, sit, eat and reflect away from the road. If we are to truly embrace slow tourism, this must be addressed because slow tourism and roads full of cars and campervans do not mix.
One of the ‘safe’ roads I often run/cycle. The double issue here is the incredibly important wildflower verges are often cut to make them useable by pedestrians. They aren’t useable even cut back and an important ecological corridor is lost.
Prioritising Active Travel
How to fix it!
The St Magnus Way (SMW) in Orkney has many cousins on the continent including the very well-trodden Santiago del Compostela (SdC) pilgrimage, so we know that people are drawn to these as an experience. Most people do these trails continuously, they overnight in pilgrim hostels, buy food locally and take in the scenery. They will get to the start via public transport and return the same. So public transport and accommodation along the way are important. The SdC is also off-road, and those sections near roads have a path along them making for a reflective and enjoyable experience.
You cannot be reflective walking along a road edge, it could kill you. It is the noticeable difference between the UK and continental Europe, that they seem to do paths and cycleways so much better than we do, they can build cycleways under mountains, alongside lakes and across agricultural land, there is a genuine wish to share the land amongst all, this is outdoor social democracy in action and it also pays back in creating a healthier population reducing pressure on the health service.
On a holiday near Lac d’Annecy last year I was incredibly impressed by the two-lane cycleway, which was as wide as most Orkney roads. It was well used by cyclists, runners, walkers, people with scooters and rollerblades, skateboarders many which were children. They even have signs telling you how long it is to the next destination.
Our NHS is fantastic, but it is creaking at the seams with the demands of dealing with complex illnesses, an ageing population and an increasing obesity epidemic, Orkney is no exception. There are medical issues that happen no fault of our own, but there is a lot we can do to loosen the strain and one of those is taking responsibility for our broader health. We need to prioritise active travel and back it up with sustainable public transport. Motorised transport should increasingly be a last resort and for business use only.
It is not an option to just replace personal petrol/diesel with electric as we know that the wider environmental cost of electric battery manufacturing is going to devastate already fragile regions of our planet and exploit further those in the southern hemisphere. Our priority should be electric public transport, bikes and mobility vehicles and we need to think out the box, we need to ask is a bus network the best long-term approach on Orkney or can we do better, with light electric rail that runs up to the ports and key sites across the island that can also take bikes; but underpinning all this we need a safe active travel infrastructure for all residents and visitors to use, places to lock bikes up at (because bikes do get stolen here) and rest places for people to stop at.
Whilst walking on challenging mini mountain routes in the Haute-Savoie, France I was impressed at the number of incredibly young local families out on these walks. The outdoors is an ethos here, and we may not have the Alpine sun but we can adopt the same spirit.
Over tourism is not pandemic proof and the economic impact is going to be long lasting until 2023, the warning is that more pandemics are likely as we infringe and tamper with this planets’ natural system.
We need a slower, more sustainable form of tourism that can weather these storms, the question is will OIC listen and act to make this happen?
Or will we simply put all our green eggs into one basket and hope it doesn’t get dropped.