WALKING at a much slower pace than usual after an unfortunate slip on the ice outside his front door during the “Beast from the East”, Willie Cameron is frustrated. “I broke my ankle and it’s really holding me back,” says the man known locally as Mr Loch Ness. “One minute I was on my feet, the next I was on the pavement.”

The founding director of the £20 million-turnover Cobbs Group, a thriving bakery and hospitality business based in Drumnadrochit on the banks of Loch Ness employing 350 people, isn’t letting it hold him back, however. There is dogged determination in his voice as the normally sprightly entrepreneur talks about his diverse business interests – a fast-growing bakery operation, hotels, coffee shops and retail shops – in the Highlands.

Add to the equation his Loch Ness Marketing business which he set up in 1994 to provide services to the film and television industries, his involvement with the Made in Scotland food and drink export group, his reputation as a world authority on the Loch Ness monster and his many engagements as an after-dinner speaker and it appears that this man is on a single-handed mission to promote the Highlands.

Born in Grantown-on-Spey and brought up in a Gaelic-speaking home on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides until the age of four then Inverness, Mr Cameron is a rare force of nature whose energy and lust for life is that of a man half his age. At 67, he shows no signs of slowing down despite his temporary injury. “This is a big year for tourism in the Highlands,” he said, referring to the recent introduction of a direct air service between Scotland and China.

Hainan Airlines started operating twice-weekly direct flights between Edinburgh and Beijing in June although Mr Cameron has been bringing Chinese tourists to the Highlands since last year and, after forging links with a travel company, will bring 12,000 visitors from China this year. Indeed, he has gained a large army of fans in Guangzhou in southern China where he signed the deal Nanhu Travel, thanks to social media and wearing a kilt.

“The Chinese love Scotland because we have a great story to tell,” said Mr Cameron. “We brought almost 2,000 Chinese tourists to Loch Ness last year and over the winter. The new Edinburgh route will really open up the Highlands – and the rest of Scotland. Don’t underestimate the opportunity or the value to the economy, particularly to the Highlands.”

Mr Cameron’s introduction to Nanhu Travel came completely by chance after his nephew, Rory Cameron, who is managing director of Cobbs Group, got into conversation with two Nanhu employees who were visiting the Highlands. They asked what there was to see and do in the area and he took them on an impromptu tour.

Dialogue continued then Mr Cameron travelled to Guangzhou to meet directors of the company who were already speaking to VisitBritain about bringing Chinese tourists to the UK. Inverness and Loch Ness forms part of Nanhu’s 360-Degree VisitBritain campaign which aims to bring some 40,000 visitors to the UK every year – with 40 per cent of those heading for the Highlands.

Figures released in April revealed that the number of Chinese visitors flocking to Scotland has surged by almost 200 per cent in just 10 years with around 41,000 people travelling from China for a holiday or business trip. The Chinese market is now worth an estimated £36 million compared to just £7m 10 years ago.

“This is an exciting, emerging market and there’s going to be a short-term benefit of hundreds of thousands of pounds for the local Highlands economy,” said Mr Cameron. “However, we need to look ahead to the long-term opportunities because mark my words – this is a game-changer for Scottish tourism and we need to be ready for it.

“For example, the Chinese don’t like using credit cards so businesses need to be aware that their preferred payment method is WeChat Pay,” he continued. “Every business that welcomes tourists – hotels, restaurants, bars, B&Bs, shops – needs to be China-ready because believe me, they’re coming.

“And get your story ready – the Chinese are already lapping up the story behind Scotch whisky, the Loch Ness Monster and so on, and they’re buying into our history and our culture. They love castles. They love stunning scenery. Provenance is important but so is having a story, a narrative, because you can then engage with people and elaborate on the myths and romance that go hand in hand with Scotland.”

An excellent example, he said, is cruise and tour firm Loch Ness by Jacobite which is already tapping into the Chinese opportunity. Mr Cameron, who is also the “voice” of the firm and provides the onboard commentary on its cruises, warned: “Some businesses are aware of what’s happening and are including pages in Mandarin and Cantonese on their websites but others are complacent – they don’t realise how big the opportunity is.

“It’s not just tourism that will benefit, it’s business too,” he continued. “Driving three hours up the road from Edinburgh for a meeting with Highlands & Islands Enterprise is nothing to people when they come from such a big country – they’re used to travelling long distances whereas as some Scots would class driving up from Glasgow to Loch Ness a long journey – it’s not.

“When I worked in Edinburgh I drove back up home every weekend – my colleagues thought I was nuts,” he recalls, referring to his 25 years in financial services before he developed an appetite for tourism and a taste for good food and drink, then founding the Loch Ness Coffee Company with husband-and-wife team Fraser and Jackie Campbell.

“We actually didn’t set out to buy a bakery,” Mr Cameron explained. “We bought what was a farmhouse bakery in Drumnadrochit to make it a café and supply our own outlets but the homemade cakes were really popular in the area and further afield. That was in 2002 and the business mushroomed as we started supplying tourist attractions and other places.”

Today, the bakery supplies a vast range of outlets including CalMac ferries, and shops, cafes and restaurants across Scotland, England and Ireland via wholesalers Fife Creamery, Bidfood and Lynas Foodservice.

“Our relationship with Bidfood goes back to when their Oban depot was operated by Forteith Foodservice and we started working together,” Mr Cameron explained. “We’ve now got a great relationship with Bidfood which has helped us grow south of the Border while Lynas has bolstered our business in Ireland.

Mr Cameron added: “We’ve worked really hard and a pivotal contract for us was to supply cupcakes to one of the sponsors at the London Olympics in 2012,” Mr Cameron recalls. “That gave us a lot of confidence and from there we won a contract to supply traybakes to caterer Sodexo for the athletes’ village and other venues at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games two years later. We’ve also supplied the Scottish Open and the Ryder Cup.”

Cobbs inherited many of its recipes from the owners of that small farmhouse bakery while others have been handed down from family and friends. From muffins and scones to traybakes and cupcakes, there’s a Cobbs cake for everyone – including a gluten-free range that is produced in a dedicated factory built in 2016.

All products are handmade with no artificial ingredients and the company is currently developing a new range of reduced-sugar products in collaboration with Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. “You have to be innovative in the food and drink industry and it’s something we pride ourselves on,” said Mr Cameron.

“We’re particularly excited about this new range because it’s responding to the Scottish Government’s diet and obesity strategy,” he continued. “We were ahead of the curve when we launched our gluten-free range and we’re ahead with this too as the government looks to improve the Scottish diet out of the home.

“For us, it’s also about opening up new markets for the business and being innovative in the process. We make cakes so we’re right in the firing line but happy to rise to the challenge and create products that are healthier but still very much a treat.”

While Mr Cameron’s role as a global ambassador for the Highlands is an unofficial one, his efforts to promote the area have been endorsed officially on numerous occasions, including in 2005 when he was awarded Highland Ambassador of the Year for services to tourism and, more recently, when he was named Ambassador of the Year at the 2016 Highlands & Islands Food & Drink Awards.

Will his “think local, act global” approach to business brush off on more Highland businesses in the future? “I hope so,” he said. “There’s always an opportunity. Look at the North Coast 500 – the route’s on the doorsteps of so many local hospitality and tourism businesses and this summer we’ll have a record number of cruise ships docking at Invergordon.

“The Highlands is also still riding on the back of the Disney-Pixar movie Brave which is still a big opportunity for us because it tells a great story. So get your story ready, get your staff ready.”

Mr Cameron’s own story is a point in case. So, too, is that of Cobbs, named after racing driver and adventurer John Cobb who died while trying to break the world water speed record on Loch Ness in 1952. This adventurer may well break a few records of his own in the world of Highlands tourism.

Six Questions

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

I have property in Italy and have been going there for 40 years and its appeal never wanes. I also have strong connections with Ireland – my son lives there and I do business there – and I also love the islands of Thailand for the people, the food and the scenery.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I wanted to be a detective. My late father was a detective superintendent and I was always hearing stories about the CID. But I had no interest in directing traffic – I was aiming for fast-track promotion.

What was your biggest break in business?

The Loch Ness Monster.

What was your worst moment in business?

There are two. I was made redundant when I worked for a financial services broker in the late 1980s when the recession hit. There was also a problem with the hotel I ran with my then business partner. He only had a verbal agreement with the owner, nothing in writing, and we were given 40 days to quit. I think you need the odd dunt in business though – it makes you wiser and more careful.

Who do you most admire and why?

Professor Terry Stevens from Swansea University. He is both visionary and inspirational when it comes to developing tourism strategies and new destinations. I've known him for 20 years and worked with him – he's incredibly switched on.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to? What was the last film you saw?

Leonard Cohen's biography, I'm Your Man. I've been a fan since my school days. I got a record player as a present so I've been digging out my old vinyl and listing to some new records – the latest is Otis Redding's Otis Blue. The last film I watched was Monsters of the Abyss from Animal Planet. I don't know it will be available to watch here but it's about divers who investigate the wreck of a German U-boat which is believed to have been attacked by a sea monster. It was filmed in Loch Ness.