On a recent visit to a well-known Scottish hotel near Glasgow, a row of brightly coloured sports cars parked outside was garnering a lot of attention from guests.

Inquiries revealed that the flashy motors were bound for the far north of Scotland, which might have elicited some surprise 10-15 years ago.

Not so now.

The North Coast 500 has become one of Europe's most popular road trips. Top Gear dedicated a show to it in 2019 and Aston Martin even named a series of cars after the route.

It was launched in 2015 with a simple aim - to boost tourism in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire, areas that did not see the high visitor numbers of Inverness and other, more accessible parts of the Scottish Highlands.

It didn't take long for the plaudits to arrive, as swathes of drivers were dazzled by the undulating peatland slopes of Applecross and unspoilt beaches including Achmelvich, just this week listed among tropical paradises in Mauritius, Thailand and Hawai.HeraldScotland:

That same year it was named fifth in the "Top 5 Coastal Routes in the World" by Now Travel Magazine.

READ MORE: 'I got it wrong': NC500 hotelier responds to criticism over £25 fish supper

However, it wasn't all rosy. There was criticism that much of the economic benefit appeared to be going to the larger towns, rather than the smaller settlements. 

In 2017, writer and broadcaster Cameron McNeish questioned the promotion of the route, given that the Scottish Government had adopted strong positions on climate change and renewable energy.

In more recent years, there have been increasing concerns about the environmental impact of high-volume traffic, drivers speeding or convoys of campervans moving too slowly as well as damaged roads, dirty camping and strained infrastructure.


Police have reported an increase in complaints of poor driving and speeding along the route while some drivers have boasted of completing the route in under 24 hours. 

Last weekend police stopped a driver who was clocked doing 117mph in a 60 zone.

The story, covered by The Herald, prompted one reader to say: "I long for the days before the damned NC500. Was a regular visitor to enjoy many of its locations, alas no more, best avoid."

This week a warning was also issued over the apparent ‘suicide driving’ by a group of around 30 drivers taking part in an organised NC500 road trip. 

A post on a local Facebook community page for residents in the Scourie, Kinlochbervie and Durness area alleges that a group of cars "marked with numbers" are overtaking other vehicles “in seriously dangerous places”.

READ MORE: Motorist caught driving 117mph on NC500 route

Marie Todd, SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross said she is contacted by constituents in the Summer months who regularly witness vehicles passing through their village at high speed, risking other road users and pedestrians.

She said: "Right now, too many feel like they are being used to generate income for the tourist industry, with little in it for themselves.”

Businesses bumping up prices for this new, captive audience was another complaint.

In March, David Whiteford, director of Highland Coast Hotels, admitted he "got it wrong" after his £25 fish suppers at the Kylesku in Sutherland  provoked an angry backlash.

Highland Councillor Angus MacDonald believes the route is clearly good for the economy but said: "We do not have the necessary infrastructure to cope, 

"Beauty spots are suffering from human waste behind the bushes and rubbish left behind.

"In Europe and America campers must use authorised campsites."

Locals who aren't in the tourism trade have understandably asked, "What's in it for us?"

Nevertheless, the NC500 does appear to have achieved what it set out to do, boosting tourist footfall in areas battling the de-population that poet Norman McCaig alluded to in his poem, A Man in Assynt.

The Moffat Centre for Travel and Tourism Business Development at Glasgow Caledonian University carried out an economic impact assessment in 2018 and found that it led to 180 full-time jobs being created while businesses at or near the route saw an increase of £13.4m in sales

The demand from tourists went from 10-12 weeks to closer to ten months while accommodation occupancy rose from 52% in 2014 to 78% in 2018.

There was also a 42% increase in visits to paid attractions.

There have been other attempts to create destination road routes in Scotland but "none of them worked" says Professor John Lennon, director of the centre, who is a also on the board of the group that oversees the route.

"This is one that worked in a very remote part of Scotland that people by and large didn't visit.

"People go to Inverness and they think Inverness is the Highlands.

"Inverness has its charms but there is a lot more to discover. Getting people four hours north of Edinburgh to start a route was a big achievement.

"All we have done is highlight the natural heritage and beauty of this part of Scotland. We haven't built anything that cost £ 50 million," said Prof Lennon.

He says most people take between six and nine nights to complete the route, which means the majority are not speeding.

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"A heck of a lot of them are stopping, eating, drinking, buying stuff, visiting attractions.


"Operators are saying it's even busier up there at the moment."

However, he says that there is "a task to do" to improve the infrastructure for such high volumes of traffic.

"You need better roads, you need rubbish bins, you need more WCs regularly cleaned and emptied," he says.

"These are basic things that are good for locals as well if you get the councils doing them."

Responsibility for the route from Inverness to Thurso by the A9 falls onto the Scottish Government and the rest falls onto Highland Council. 

Last year, a second bid by the council to try to secure £44m from the UK Government’s Levelling Up Fund was unsuccessful.

The money would have been used for a raft of improvements to improve safety and visitor experience including a passing place strategy to deal with increased traffic on single-track country roads.

Rhoda Grant, Labour MSP for the Highlands and Island has said the problem is that the costs are currently coming at the expense of local services.

Some have suggested a tourist tax should be introduced by the council, which seems worthy of serious consideration.

Quintin Stevens has operated the Storehouse Restaurant on the shores of the Cromarty Firth in Ross-shire for the past 18 years.

He said: "You’ve got to remember tourism is local, it’s Highland, it’s national, it’s international.

That name has been phenomenally successful, globally.  

"What the name has done is extend the season, considerably," he says.

"Highland tourism was always pretty short and it's also helped the whole long weekend.


"And just because you are not on the main route doesn’t mean you shouldn’t benefit.

"I recognise that the main part of my business is very much geared for Highland folk because they are there all year round.

"I’m very much priced and structured to looking after my Highland trade and then welcome with open arms any visitors."

He says the Scottish Government and Highland Council need to "get behind the route" financially.

Tourism experts say the body that oversees the NC500 should also consider a fresh evaluation that assesses the social and environmental impact to ensure that the route drives benefits for everyone at as little cost to nature as possible.