Dear Orkney News,
It is high time Orkney undertook a long, honest, holistic appraisal of tourism and how it operates here.
With the return of coaches and the cruise liners, most heritage sites open again, and even heavy insinuations that the car park at the Ring of Brodgar will soon be charged for, the moaners and the groaners – on both sides of the tourism debate – are also back in full sail.
Orkney is currently a major global tourist destination. Our county has the choice to keep at this level – already causing problems for some – or reduce or expand capacity. The COVID pandemic put restrictions on travel and then saw a shift in attitude in the tourism industry as a whole and in its customers as individual consumers – ‘sustainability’ being key, but what does that really mean?
There are both advantages and disadvantages to Orkney’s popularity from visitors. The advantages are those concerned with our economy, or at least for some people or sectors in our economy (including myself, as I have a vested interest as a tourist guide). Whereas some of the main criticisms centre on the argument that there are ‘too many people in one place at the same time and they are ruining Orkney’. This criticism tends to focus on the cruise-ships and the associated coaches but there are other issues which come with tourism, not least:
· Environmental damage
· Several large Orkney hotels now under the financial control of global corporations rather than local families
· The proportion of properties now being used as holiday accommodation, which pushes property prices up and reduces the housing stock available for residents to rent
· People increasingly choosing Orkney as their home, often on retirement, necessarily impacting on the demographics and economy
· Obvious income inequalities, with evidence for certain sectors subsequently becoming disenfranchised, as revealed in a general increase in littering and minor vandalism
All these things are inter-related, they necessarily impact on each other and ultimately on the type of place which Orkney currently is and may become.
Orkney could have an honest, grown-up, inclusive debate about what is best for Orkney. A genuine, unrushed consultation, where everyone (including the less articulate and the non-shouty) is fully listened to (rather than a tick-box exercise which most consultations tend to favour in reality). We could make brave decisions, as a community, which might limit some of the more negative aspects of tourism. These decisions might take the form of introducing specific charges or progressive local taxes which could be used to redress some of the financial imbalances. Likewise, these decisions might take the form of reserving residential properties exclusively for locals’ use. We might curb or ration tourist provision. There are lots of options, if only we choose to stand up for them together; such changes have the potential to improve the environment and the lives of everyone in Orkney.
The alternative is that Orkney continues to stumble into becoming an ‘island theme park’; a prospect which the biggest commercial players would no doubt wish to see take place. Inevitably, the majority of any profit would then be taken out of the county and spent elsewhere. It’s rarely beneficial for decisions to be made solely by market forces; in a capitalist society, market forces always focus on short term profit and exploitation. If human greed is allowed to dictate the future of Orkney, then tourism will expand uncontrollably and the very things which make Orkney special will be trashed.
When that happens, the tourists will stop coming and we will have killed the ‘goose which laid the golden egg’. Orkney is marketed as a peaceful and ‘natural’ destination with a friendly supportive community. Are these qualities not worth preserving?
Yours, Helen Woodsford-Dean, Co-convenor Orkney Greens