Through her office window, Patricia Kent has a perfect view of the snow-covered slopes of Ben Ledi, dominating one of Scotland’s best loved tourist towns.

“I’ve lived here for nearly 30 years, and sometimes I forget how amazing it is,” she says. “I can look out from my office at Ben Ledi, it’s white with snow and it’s stunning. As a local, sometimes I take it for granted.”

A beacon for visitors, 879m high peak calls them to explore the town of Callander, with its Victorian main street buildings, the meandering river Teith, the tumbling Bracklinn Falls and, beyond, the beauty of the Trossachs and onwards to Loch Lomond.

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For many, however, it is just a whistle-stop visit.

“We need to give people a better experience,” says Patricia. “there’s a lot of small shops in Callander, and we want to encourage people to come and stay here.”

Fed up seeing visitors whizz around the nation’s beauty spots, clogging up popular spots and with few essential services to greet them, communities across the country have taken tourism matters into their own hands.

Having embraced the concept of community ownership, they’ve become Scotland’s new face of tourism, running everything from old hotels to pubs, motorhome campsites, visitor centres and even toilet blocks.

Now, under the umbrella of a new organisation, they are joining forces in a nationwide effort to encourage this summer’s tourists to slow down, and to see Scotland’s beauty spots through their eyes.

Launched last year, Scottish Community Tourism (SCOTO) has grown into a Scotland-wide network of community-owned tourism organisations and businesses - some which emerged as embattled locals struggled with overwhelming pressure from visitors and campervans as lockdown restrictions eased.

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Now as many tourists begin to plot their summer break, it is urging them to actively seek out community-run accommodation, activities, and food and drink venues, tempting them with the pledge that in return they’ll receive precious ‘insider’ knowledge direct from locals of hidden places to visit, community events and how to make their visit more memorable.

HeraldScotland: Callander's Bridgehouse Hotel is now a youth projectCallander's Bridgehouse Hotel is now a youth project (Image: Scottish Community Tourism)

The community fightback comes after waves of pre- and post- pandemic headlines highlighting tourist hotspots flooded by overwhelming numbers of tourists, inconsiderate campervan owners blocking cemetery gates or dumping chemical toilet waste by roadsides, and litter.

While some buckled under too many visitors who parked, snapped a selfie and left, others suffered from losing visitors to ‘Instagram’ popular destinations.

A series of issues on the NC500 route – from speeding sports cars to plodding campervans – may have left the impression that Scotland’s tourist spots had fallen out of love with visitors.

Instead, says Carron Tobin, SCOTO’s Callander-based representative,  they are anxious to encourage more to stay.

“Tourism is seen as a dirty word because of over-tourism issues and people who come but don’t give anything back to community,” she says.

“But this is about communities welcoming visitors and helping them see why it’s a great place to live and work and why it’s worth spending time there.

“It’s helping people scratch below the surface and experience the real community instead of that Instagram image.”

Land reform and community empowerment has opened the door to a raft of community-led tourism initiatives – some providing essential services abandoned by authorities, she adds.

“We have toilets and visitor centres that closed and which communities have taken over. When a community is running the local visitor centre, you find volunteers who are proud of their heritage and want to tell people about it.

“People want to buy local, they want local experiences and to understand what it’s like to live as a local,” she says.

“And we want people to experience the real community instead of just that Instagram image.

It’s hoped slower and more mindful tourism might also spark  spin-off benefits. “So many people move somewhere because they were a visitor there first and liked what they’ve seen, and it was the community that sparked what they wanted to like there,” adds Carron.

In Callander, the distinctive white walled and black framed former Bridgehouse Hotel close to the river was for decades a popular destination for tourists.

When its fortunes dipped, the doors closed. At risk of becoming an eyesore, it was taken over by community-led Callander Youth Project and run as a no-frills 28-bed hostel which also provided hospitality and tourism experience for local young people.

The pandemic, which saw the town swamped by tourists as restrictions ease, led to a rethink: now it has upscaled with ensuite bedrooms and glamping pods.

“It’s important for us to encourage people who are staying here to visit other social enterprise businesses,” says Pauline. “It’s all about making sure everyone gets a piece of the pie.

“And if they go somewhere else and get same experience, it’ll encourage them to come back again.”

In Moray, where the community-run Moray Way Association promotes the 100-mile walking route the Moray Way and an annual walking festival, Diane Smith, SCOTO co-ordinator for the area, says community-run tourism gives visitors a more realistic impression of life in Scotland.

“Visitors are engaging with locals so they can find out best places to go swimming or best pubs, if there’s a small community event on or a wedding, they’ll get invited.

“There are many rural communities where if it wasn’t for the visitors, the hotel or pub would not be able to stay open all year round to provide for weddings and funerals for locals.

“The hope is to make tourism work for visitors and for the community.”

In Findhorn, villagers have become the most unlikely toilet attendants and campsite owners, after grouping together to solve problems caused by too many visitors and not enough amenities.

They now run a campervan site and toilet block after counting up to 60 campervans parked around the village.

HeraldScotland: Callander Youth Project accommodation podsCallander Youth Project accommodation pods (Image: Callander Youth Project) 

Income from both have been poured back into the village while tourism has encouraged new businesses – a coffee stall and a mobile sauna – and helped to bring income to existing ones.

Further north in Shetland, locals have launched a 13-stop trail around Unst, each with a sky-related theme in the hope of attracting tourists interest in the northern lights, dark skies and the emerging space sector.

Back in Callander, VisitScotland’s information centre closed in 2019. Now run by a community group, its pilot season dealt with 20,000 enquiries.

Likewise, when VisitScotland quit its Tourist Information Centre in Glenurquhart – leaving a Loch Ness community reliant on tourism without any formal tourist information available for visitors – locals stepped in.

On the Isle of Eigg, in community hands since 1997, locals run a range of tourist facilities including camping pods.

Lucy Conway, a director of the Isle of Eigg Heritage, says the community-led approach offers visitors the opportunity to dip below the surface of the places they visit.

“Instead of people island bagging – ticking off islands like they would bag munros – we want them to slow down and enjoy the place.

“A lot of the Instagram culture is about racing from one place to another and not about connecting with locals.

“And locals think visitors are not really interested in them. But it’s a two way street.

“It’s about us explaining that a different experience is there, that communities are looking to welcome people and they are not just seen as walking sources of cash.”