THE push and pull of solutions to tackle the future of the NC500 have multiplied over recent months as the road route’s popularity continues unabated.

“There are legitimate questions on whether tourists entering the Highlands and exploring the North Coast roadway are paying their way to visit this area,” according to Ian Blackford, SNP MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, as he described how his constituency has been coping with the summer’s huge influx of visitors looking to marvel at the natural beauty of northern Munros, lochs and coastlines.

Amid calls to levy charges specifically on visitors’ vehicles on overnight stays in the NC500 area, the SNP’s former Westminster leader said: “The concept of payment for those, for example, coming in campervans into the area we could really look into, along with some kind of tourist tax on accommodation in the Highlands.

“We’d have to make sure there is proportionality and it may mean looking into the prospect of using number plate recognition technology, which we can do.”

Such an approach appears to be backed by Highland Council leader Raymond Bremner, SNP councillor for Caithness and Sutherland, who admits that infrastructure and service investment need to increase and be balanced to avoid damaging the area’s ecosystems.

READ MORE: Liz Truss shrugs off mortgage rate hike after shameless speech

He said: “There need to be many improvements to enable a better service to visitors to the Highlands and on the NC500. But I don’t think we can leave that down to the responsibility of the Highland Council. Many are getting the benefit of the NC500 and therefore ... the responsibility needs to be shared by everybody getting the benefit of that route.”

However, these are not views backed by all residents on the North Coast 500’s route. While unwilling to comment publicly, many hoteliers are quietly loath to back additional levies which add administrative costs and punish would-be guests.

One business owner is more outspoken. Duncan Ross, proprietor of Lochcarron Garage and shop in Ross-shire, said: “I think the proposal to tax visitors in cars is a terrible idea. It’s as if I invite you to come to my home and then charge you a pound for visiting. It’s an extra, discriminatory tax and people have already given up accommodating visitors due to high costs.”

He puts the poor state of non-trunk roads on the NC500 and need for more public facilities down to a lack of initiative and effort by the Highland Council, as well as a lack of support by major landowners along the route.

Despite its faults, the NC500 has its champions. Donna Mackay, owner of Crumbs near Bettyhill and Tongue, started her roadside business by chance after her daughters, Kira, five, and Rhea, eight, enthused over opening a lemonade stand on the single-track road near their home.

The National: The NC500 has been a success - but it's also causing strain on limited infrastructureThe NC500 has been a success - but it's also causing strain on limited infrastructure

Instead of lemonade, Donna – who had already developed a small sideline making wedding cakes – and the girls opened the self-standing Crumbs Cake Cupboard, stocked with sausage rolls and cakes, with an honesty box for payments. “I had no idea of the NC500 connection but within nine weeks, online messages really put us on the map.” Crumbs Cake Cupboard has since become an NC500 hit on social media, selling more than 100 items per day.

“My husband thinks this could be a full-time job, even though we’re in an area with no street lighting – and I’m thinking of closing for a few winter months. But I’m definitely a supporter of the NC500, although levies on campervans may be a good idea,” says Mackay.

“We have had wonderful, courteous visitors over the summer including from overseas, such as Belgium, Japan and Australia, and we’ve never witnessed any serious traffic problems. That’s been slightly spoiled by a couple of thefts from the box and witnessing people dumping rubbish but we’re keeping going, Tuesdays to Saturdays.”

While Facebook’s NC500 sites are packed daily with photos from admiring visitors these are not always complimentary. One entrant on September 13, 2023, wrote:

“On a wee mad road, I’m going to need a valium or at least a gin, as people are parking in passing places for a brew, travelling in convoy, getting their vans stuck and driving too fast around bends.” In a high-profile operation in late August police stopped some 60 vehicles on the NC500 for offences including speeding and poor driving.

READ MORE: Expert debunks Keir Starmer's 'better Brexit' plan

A description of the NC500 as being “a brilliant idea but a logistical nightmare” is shared by Oksana Iatsiuta from Thurso Community Development Trust, a town charity focused on community engagement and climate action. With particular focus on waste she said: “The NC500 road is busy and not really geared to massive tourist capacity, while the infrastructure regarding rubbish and sewage is not all it could be.”

But Iatsiuta insisted that Thurso’s retail and general community welcomes its visitors – many of whom have shown support for the Trust’s goals on reducing consumption and waste, such as encouraging re-usable cups. “We progress by trial and error.”

Highland Council’s Bremner points out that its increased infrastructure spending of recent years has limits.

“When you look at the size and maintenance of the NC500 and levels of traffic now, that’s a huge cost that’s right now unaffordable.

We’d definitely have to look at that again if the NC500 were to continue to be so popular – it’s a nice problem to have but a very real one.”

For Blackford, even as he saw a real need for greater investment, motorists’ behaviour and the rising number of accidents on the NC500 require closer reminders and signage on road use.

READ MORE: Stephen Flynn challenges Anas Sarwar to 'come clean' on triple lock

“When I speak with those that live here and the police, there’s concern not just with the nature of the accidents but the near-misses as well. We need to keep people safe. People have been taking unnecessary risks.”

He was equally aware of frustrations due to recent ferry service disruptions, such as that servicing the Isle of Skye.

Blackford believed that Highland residents have been poorly served by strategic initiatives, such as on the NC500 and environmental policies, which have left many rightly angered, mirrored as well by continued population declines across the north.

He concluded: “There have to be proper consultations with those that live here – and we have to deliver that. I have a sense of sadness that while some areas are regenerating, the Highlands are emptying in others.”