Editorial: We cannot, and should not, expect Skye’s tourist industry to disappear

The Fairy Pools is one of the island’s most popular visitor spots.

We do not know exactly how many tourists now visit Skye each year. Informed sources usually put it at 500,000 to 600,000 people.

It could be more; it is unlikely to be less. It is a lot of visitors to be absorbed by a resident population of 10,000.

So does Skye suffer from an “overtourism” crisis?

Last week Mark Crothall, the chief executive of the independent industry body the Scottish Tourism Alliance, denied that Scotland as a whole suffered from “overtourism”.

Instead, argued Mr Crothall, the country has a couple of “pressure points” which in their season attract a lot of people and a lot of publicity.

The most prominent of Mark Crothall’s pressure points are — you guessed it — Edinburgh and the island of Skye.

In a sense the question is academic. If Edinburgh and Skye do suffer from overtourism, what can we do about it? In a free country, we cannot stop people from coming here, even if we wanted to.

It should also be recognised that folk visit those two places for different reasons. Edinburgh is an architectural jewel which is at its most crowded during the annual festival. People come to Skye for the scenery — most notably in recent years to the Trotternish Ridge and the Fairy Pools, two undeniably beautiful spots in an island which is full of other undeniably beautiful spots.

The Storr, Skye. Image credit: Willie Urquhart – WHFP.

Edinburgh cannot be expected to cancel its festival, any more than we want to drain the Fairy Pools or blow up the Old Man of Storr.

And we do not want to stop them coming. They bring money, which provides jobs and kickstarts enterprises and improves the island’s economic wellbeing even outside the realm of the local tourist industry.

Professor John Lennon (what else were Mr and Mrs Lennon going to call their baby boy?) of Glasgow Caledonian University’s Moffat Centre is presently commissioned by another independent body, SkyeConnect, to carry out a major survey of the impact of tourism on Skye.

Professor Lennon and his colleagues are not due to deliver their report until next spring. But he will offer a taste of its findings so far to the autumn conference of SkyeConnect next month.

We look forward to both the sample and the full report. We can hazard a guess at some of its content.

Skye has been “discovered” by the rest of the world, like a Caledonian Machu Picchu.

Unlike the Peruvian Inca site, however, Skye is a very big island. Unlike Machu Picchu, it is not yet collapsing under the weight of its visitors’ feet.

Skye can — and Mark Crothall congratulated the Skyetime campaign for pointing this out — accommodate half a million visitors, and continue to benefit hugely from their spending, particularly if certain adjustments are made to the tourist itinerary.

More people should be encouraged to spend a quiet and infinitely rewarding week in Elgol or Waternish, in all four seasons, than take a whistle-stop, bucket list summer tour of the Storr, the Fairy Pools and back to the bridge.

And of course, local and national government should do much more to improve the basic infrastructure of the island, from roads and parking areas to public transport and public toilets.

Skye has bucked the trend of the rest of the north-western Highlands and Islands by growing its population and its economy in recent years.

That has chiefly been because of the tourist industry. After 150 years of steady and apparently irreversible decline, the growth quite naturally took everybody by surprise. We should now learn to adapt to it, rather than call it “overtourism” and hope that it goes away.