A NETWORK of cycle paths is to be built across the Highlands “to ease the ever-increasing visitor pressure” on tourist routes such as the North Coast 500 or through the West Highlands to Skye under plans outlined in a new report.

Transform Scotland, the alliance of sustainable transport supporters, said Scotland needs a dedicated off-road system to make the experience less dangerous and unpleasant for cyclists and help this country compete with other European countries for about £345m the pastime could bring each year.

The report found that barriers exist in expanding cycle tourism, such as a lack of safe and convenient cycle paths on key tourist routes.

HeraldScotland: North Coast 500

Above: Along the way on the North Coast 500

Opening up the wider untapped cycling leisure industry would also help free up the creaking Highland tourist route network, which can be slowed down by cyclists as well as other visitors looking to make the most of the surroundings including camper van tourists.

Potentially big-earning routes should be identified and properly exploited.

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The plan would also mean filling in the gaps in part-off-road routes like the Caledonian Way, with the government-backed infrastructure push.

Jamie Wylie, spokesperson for Transform Scotland, said: "Segregated cycling routes should be implemented on key cycle tourism routes across Scotland.

"This is vital in order for Scotland to capitalise on the economic opportunities of leisure cycle tourism and to compete with other countries in Europe, where key cycling routes are often entirely traffic-free."

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He said: "On-road cycling routes, as is the norm in Scotland, force cyclists to mix with vehicles, which can be an unpleasant and potentially dangerous experience.

“Existing routes such as the Caledonia Way, and NCN7, which runs from Inverness right through to the Border, would benefit from having more traffic-free sections.

"We think it’s essential that new off-road cycle routes are created, such as through the West Highlands to Skye.”

The Routes to Growth report said: “The Scottish Government should use the strategic transport projects review as an opportunity to identify routes with a high cycle tourism potential, and fund the creation of segregated cycle facilities along the length of these routes.

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"Such investment would facilitate the future growth of cycle tourism on these routes, relieve pressure on the local road network in rural communities, and unlock further economic growth for rural communities across Scotland."

Humza Yousaf , Scottish Government Transport Minister, said: "We welcome this report which highlights the increasing importance and potential of cycle tourism in Scotland."