The road is full of twists and turns, spectacular scenery, peaceful communities and, as tourists have arrived in their droves, one or two little bumps.

Heavily marketed as a Scottish tourism “must do”, the North Coast 500 has been dubbed Scotland’s Route 66, offering a warm north Highland welcome to visitors in their campervans and tents who whizz around its villages and single track roads, ticking each sight off as they go.

Hailed a success by some, new research shows that for others, the route, its organisers and some of its users have created a road to hell.

Insight into residents’ acrimonious feelings towards the NC500 has emerged in a survey which asked for opinions across a range of issues related to tourism, the economy, environment, and who should take responsibility for soaring tourist numbers’ impact on infrastructure.

More than half responded by saying they felt they had been offered no say in the route’s establishment as a tourist destination. Likewise, most felt they had not had a chance to voice opinions on its economic, environmental or social impacts. An overwhelming 94% felt there had not been sufficient effort put into alleviating the route’s negative impacts, and more than 90% said roads had been adversely affected.

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Around 80% of the 306 people who responded also indicated they were unhappy at the impact on public toilets, and more than half felt the route impacted negatively on the environment.

The online survey also showed strong feelings that the NC500 has pushed up property prices and led to fewer homes being available for people living in the communities.
Half of local business owners surveyed said they felt there were too many tourists travelling the route.

The online questionnaire was devised by student Lucy Hutton as part of her final-year dissertation at SRUC, Scotland’s Rural College. She said: “I had expected the responses to be a bit more positive.

“People don’t think there is investment going back into local communities and that the stakeholders are not taking into account the problems they are facing.”

The survey, however, is just one indication of what appears to be mounting disquiet among a portion of residents. Social media forums buzz with comments from people anxious over what they regard as a rush to lure tourists back to areas with limited healthcare facilities.

There is particular concern over recent comments by David Whiteford, chairman of the North Highland Initiative, the non-profit organisation which originally devised the NC500 idea. He suggested a need for more “uplifting” messages from the Scottish Government to allay residents’ fears and encourage tourism, and an exploration of how the two-metre social distancing rules could be eased.

His comments coincided with a survey by the business behind the route, North Coast 500 Ltd, which claimed 80% of respondents had not been put off visiting the route by the pandemic.

“A great many who live here are growing increasingly tired of being told what’s good for us by these organisations,” said one disgruntled resident who lives on the Ross and Cromarty stretch of the route.

“I can’t even hug my grandchildren. But the North Highland Initiative has spent the last month lobbying the Scottish Government, press and anyone who will listen to reopen tourism in the Highland as soon as possible, completely regardless of the views of anyone else.”

Another, Joanna Clark, said: “People are very angry, hurt and disappointed – people who work within the tourist trade included – and the bad feeling towards this organisation is widespread.

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“Their pushing to not only allow people back here but to ignore the science to make it even less safe is absolutely disgusting. Why are we as a community expected to bow to the whims of a tourist organisation rather than follow the guidelines suggested by science and the Government? Most of the owners of these places don’t even live here –they’re happy to make money while putting us locals at risk.”

Clare Wright, who has self-catering accommodation linked to her croft at Loch Ewe, said concerns over Covid-19 have added to negative feelings surrounding the route and its backers.

“Most people are quite worried about opening up to tourists and the risk of bringing the virus into the area for the first time. It feeds into most people’s view of the whole NC500 phenomenon. A lot of people feel it was foisted on them without consultation and it has changed the nature of tourism from ‘slow’ to much more frantic.

“They make a big deal of improved economic impact, but it has to be set against what people have lost.”

The NC500 tourism initiative was launched in 2015. It offers memberships to businesses which then feature on its website and in marketing material, while tourists pay a fee to access material such as route guides and pointers on how to enjoy the route.

Last October, research by Glasgow Caledonian University’s Moffat Centre for Tourism claimed the NC500 had generated £22.8 million for the north Highlands’ economy, with 180 new jobs linked to the route created in the previous year alone. Its lead author, Professor John Lennon, is an unpaid director at North Coast 500 Ltd, which promotes the route.

Tom Campbell, executive chairman of North Coast 500 Ltd, said: “We’re very aware that businesses are part of every community and there needs to be a collective understanding of the need for businesses to open and the concerns that this has to be done by taking safe and measured steps.

“We have consistently said that visitors should only travel when the Scottish Government says that it is safe to do so and we are not at that point yet.

“We must ensure that there is a clear message about why tourism businesses can reopen to ensure that everyone knows that it is being done on the guidance of the Government.”

He added: “Whether people are travelling in their own vehicle, or hiring one for their visit, we actively encourage visitors to observe our advice for safe driving on country and single-track roads, overnight parking, access rights, and waste disposal which is all available on our website.

“Whether people are travelling by car, bicycle, motorcycle, campervan, motorhome or foot, it is their responsibility to dispose of their waste responsibly. We encourage people not to leave waste for others to find or remove. It is their waste, their rubbish and we encourage everyone to take account of that when they visit this wonderful place.”