MANY people have plenty of positives to highlight as they drive, cycle or walk amid the towering Munros, around the glistening lochs and glens of the Highlands on the North Coast 500, with the 516-mile route rated among the world’s “top five” road trips.

But this soaring landscape lies amid a delicate balance of planning and promotion.

The NC500 could indirectly benefit as Scotland hosts the UCI Cycling World Championships, though it’s not directly involved. Such inspiration could amplify the NC500’s “great outdoor physical experience”, according to Dr Chris Birt, the Highland Council SNP ward member for Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh.

But Birt, also a community health practitioner, is a man on a broader mission. Last October, he officiated at the opening of a new two-way section of road on the A832 at Slattadale, widening a single-track section of the NC500 in his ward.

He concedes the project, which cost £1.4 million, later tapers into a “terrible road” towards the town of Gairloch. Road improvement is indeed a work in progress, among many.

While pointing to the council’s decision to triple planned road development spending in its latest budget, Birt described as “scandalous underspending” the approach taken by the fomer administration. Now, the plan is to upgrade some NC500 roads under a major capital works programme, under constrained budgets.

The National: Future of NC500 means steering 
a careful course

Birt said: “Life was easy when we were in the European Union because the EU redevelopment fund paid half the cost of developing new Highland roads. [The] Westminster [government] hasn’t produced any comparable support.”

The NC500 was also rejected earlier this year as a recipient for the UK’s Levelling Up Fund.

Birt added: “The route has brought an awful lot of trade but also an awful lot of swearing and antagonism on the single-track roads, so it hasn’t been a blessing at all times.

“I personally think it would be desirable to establish a dedicated public-private partnership with its own capital and invest funds to integrate the whole enterprise, since the NC500 has become a significant part of the Highland economy.”

The NC500 concept had grown rapidly out of a private-sector initiative in 2015 before the public sector appreciated the implications for road construction and improvements, camping and campervan sites and requirements for public amenities such as toilets and rubbish disposal.

Small hotel owner Leonard Lynch is extremely satisfied with how the NC500 has greatly increased revenues. His Manor House hotel is in the northern-most coastal town of Thurso, Caithness. The restored building dates back to 1878 and is presented as a rustic, family-run concern. “About 95% of our business is related to NC500 visitors and we are extremely busy,” he said.

Lynch’s prime concern is that the NC500 is promoted as both east and west coast routes rather than a one-way system, as in his native Ireland. “We could get rid of 50% of our parking and traffic problems if most visitors weren’t arriving from one direction,” he said.

The number of visitors and vehicles on the NC500 has become a growing issue among those concerned with the environmental degradation of the very natural attractions for which the route has become famous.

Yet there’s little public information about the numbers taking NC500 trips. Possibly, statistical answers could be found through taxation. Scotland faces a proposal under the Visitor Levy (Scotland) Bill aiming to be a charge on all tourists staying overnight in accommodation, matching England’s law.

BIRT is all for it: “All our European continental neighbours have this and an enabling bill to give councils options to tax and maintain a register is, to my mind, desirable. This is a minor few pence in a relatively expensive hotel stay.”

But joining the growing chorus against imposing such a levy, Lynch sees a huge disincentive to business: “We have enough to do running a hotel – a better idea would be to ease restrictions on hotel staff from Europe. We have a real problem finding restaurant chefs, for example.”

While aware of the challenges a growing and attractive location can unveil, the Scottish Government-funded Highlands and Islands Enterprise agency has its eyes firmly fixed on backing brand development.

“The NC500 has certainly had a long-lasting impact in attracting visitors as well as people who have fallen in love with the place and want to settle here – something that is often overlooked,” said Eann Sinclair, HIE area manager for Caithness and Sutherland.

He points to hotel and other businesses that have hugely enhanced their profile across the Highland region. “Visitor attractions such as Dunrobin Castle on the east coast has expanded and sustainably increased visitor numbers,” he said.

Sinclair said the NC500 suffered from intense “visitor pressure” and popularity following the Covid restrictions but that has subsided.

However, the wave of visitors brought into stark relief the requirements for visitor infrastructure in a rural setting, which is now constantly reviewed.

He praised the work of NC500 Limited in promoting and marketing the area’s brand globally.

“Eight or 10 years ago NC500 was a seasonal tourism offer of six to eight weeks per year,” Sinclair pointed out.

“Now it is much more a year-round sustainable product and that’s my ideal for visitors and local employment.”