I beg to move,
That this House has considered the contribution of the West Highland Way to the economy in Scotland.
I am extremely pleased to be able to bring this matter to the House today, so that we can consider the remarkable, positive impact of the West Highland Way economically and celebrate Scotland’s magnificent natural resources and the promotion of healthy lifestyles. I am sure that this debate will result in a great deal of cross-party consensus. I certainly hope we can consider what is necessary to continue maintaining, supporting and promoting the West Highland Way and to develop it as a resource for future generations.
I completed the West Highland Way in 2010, immediately after the general election of that year. If my Scottish National party colleagues cast their minds back to 2010 and the general election result we had, they might understand why I appreciated taking a bit of time off and going to Scotland’s unspoilt wilderness, far away from television, news, emails and mobile phones. It was an extremely appealing prospect. Perhaps hills and glens along the West Highland Way have been awash with ousted politicians from other parties in the past year. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of taking on and completing the West Highland Way, and I thoroughly recommend that hon. Members consider it when a break from the rigours of this place is required. It is a good way of recharging the batteries.
Scotland is proud to boast some of the most beautiful landscapes and most popular attractions on these isles, attracting millions of tourists from across the United Kingdom each year, as well as more travelling from North America, Europe and the rest of the world. Those visitors help to contribute to Scotland’s diverse and dynamic economy, directly and indirectly supporting jobs. Indeed, we celebrate the latest OECD figures that demonstrate strong growth in visitor numbers to Scotland.
The current VisitScotland campaign, entitled “Spirit of Scotland”, encourages all those enjoying the great tourist sector in Scotland to share their experiences on social media with the hashtag #ScotSpirit. I encourage everyone to do so. Tourism generates billions of pounds each year and is responsible for sustaining hundreds of thousands of jobs for the people of Scotland. Indeed, today’s debate falls at an important time in the calendar year: this week, from 11 to 18 March, is Scottish Tourism Week, which is being marked through a wide range of events across Scotland, engaging businesses within the tourism industry and celebrating the sector’s success.
At this juncture, it is worth reflecting on the history of the West Highland Way, before I look in some detail at its current contribution to Scotland’s economy and offer some thoughts on how we can develop it further in future. The West Highland Way opened officially in 1980, its route winding from the town centre of Milngavie in East Dunbartonshire to the ancient highland settlement of Fort William in the constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
The way was the brainchild of Tom Hunter, a keen walker and community volunteer, who I was saddened to hear passed away only last month. It is perhaps fitting that this House can today consider Tom’s legacy through this debate on the great path he created for our enjoyment. We owe Tom a great deal of thanks for creating this iconic and enduring resource.
The way boasts some of Scotland’s most impressive views, as it winds across the west highlands of Scotland through ancient roads and paths, over a distance of 96 miles. From its inauguration in 1980, the way quickly became a favourite for serious walkers and leisurely strollers alike. It has grown in popularity and renown since its inception, and, as well as becoming a favourite with the people who experience it, the way has picked up numerous awards celebrating its popularity. Most recently, it was voted one of the top 10 outdoor attractions in the world by National Geographic.
The numbers of people walking or cycling the way have grown substantially in the years since its inception, with around 35,000 people estimated to complete the entire route each year and more than 60,000 completing smaller sections of it. As part of its silver jubilee celebrations in 2005, the way was completed by a relay comprising 1,000 children and young people. On Saturday 18 June this year, the 32nd annual West Highland Way race will take place. Quite astoundingly, last year the course record was broken by Paul Giblin, who took an incredible time of 14 hours, 14 minutes and 44 seconds to complete the 96-mile course—he just beat some of my hon. Friends.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He has highlighted how fantastic the West Highland Way is. I have walked it a couple of times, although I took somewhat longer than 14 hours, I must say. He has illustrated how well used it is. Personally, I enjoyed the scenery, the signage, how welcoming everybody is and how businesses welcome walkers and tourists. The West Highland Way has spawned many imitation walks, including the River Ayr Way in my constituency, which is the only source-to-sea walk in Scotland. Unfortunately, in the neighbouring South Ayrshire Council area, a large section of the route is still on-road, rather than off-road, and many areas are shut, which means people have to divert. Does my hon. Friend agree that full signage and proper off-road routes are needed to make that walk more attractive?
I agree with the sentiments my hon. Friend has just expressed. In the interests of promoting health and wellbeing generally, these kinds of walk are fantastic. We should look at linking them up with others, to encourage this as a pastime and a hobby.
My constituency of Stirling is home to a large section of the West Highland Way—indeed, the most spectacular and beautiful section. Tourism is crucial to the livelihoods of many individuals and families in my constituency. In my maiden speech in the House of Commons, I said that I wanted to promote the tourist industry both locally and nationally. I look forward to meeting with industry stakeholders from many of these attractions in the coming months and years, fulfilling the role I have in this place, and I encourage my hon. Friends to consider spending some time over the summer recess in Stirling, to enjoy the wonderful tourist experience to be had there.
Over recent months, my colleague Bruce Crawford— the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Stirling—representatives of Stirling Council and I have been pushing hard to increase and expand broadband coverage in the rural part of the constituency where the West Highland Way is, with some success. I am confident that that work will go on. I very much welcome the First Minister’s announcement on Saturday that superfast broadband for businesses will be completed in 100% of premises in Scotland. That is a fantastic promise and I look forward to working on it.
During my research for this debate, I spoke to various organisations to determine the actual reach of the West Highland Way in terms of its value to the Scottish economy. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park authority informed me that the impact on the rural economy along the route is most likely significantly underrated. Its conservative estimates are of a direct spend contributing £28 million to the Scottish economy. On top of that, there is additional indirect spending and an even greater economic impact through attracting people to Scotland to stay longer than the time they spend tackling the West Highland Way.
It is also worth noting that the national park authority’s estimates show that more than 2,000 jobs in the national park area depend directly on tourism, which in itself demonstrates the economic importance of the sector to areas such as the west of my constituency. The John Muir economic impact survey estimated that more than £12 million was contributed by walkers who complete the route, and millions more were contributed by the many thousands of visitors who enjoy walking smaller sections of the way.
The West Highland Way brings people to Scotland to experience one of the best walks in the world, but it also allows them to experience Scottish hospitality and some of our excellent local restaurants, hotels, B and Bs and pubs. Along the route, walkers will find many fine local businesses where they can relax after a hard day’s walking and enjoy some of Scotland’s celebrated food and drink. For example, the Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha on the shores of Loch Lomond is a family-owned business established in 1997, and I stayed there during my walk in 2010. It has 70 employees and numerous awards to its name—most recently, it was named Scotland’s best independent pub in 2015. The Oak Tree Inn is a fine example of a local business that benefits from the passing trade brought to it by the West Highland Way and is an important local employer within its small rural community. From my personal experience in 2010, other places such as the Beech Tree Inn in Dumgoyne and the Crianlarich Hotel offer fantastic pit stops along the route, although I managed to avoid the temptation to visit the Glengoyne distillery—excellent as its produce is.
I hope that, through this debate, we can focus minds at all levels of Government and throughout the various businesses and organisations with an interest on the further development of the West Highland Way as a resource for the people of Scotland and as a draw for tourism.
Does my hon. Friend agree that while the West Highland Way does not criss-cross the entire nation of Scotland, it has a profound impact on the social and economic wellbeing of our country? Given that the West Highland Way headquarters are based in my own constituency, in Balloch, I am sure he understands that the economic impact is far reaching, across the whole of Scotland.
I accept that, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his ingenuity in getting his own nearby constituency into the debate—well done indeed.
With the sentiment being to expand and develop the West Highland Way and sustain it for the future, I have a few ideas to put on the table for other Members’ consideration. First, I am pleased that control of air passenger duty is being devolved and that the Scottish Government are consulting on their plan to halve the rate and remove the tax altogether in time. It is a tourist tax, and we can really benefit from that policy. However, perhaps there are other measures to support the tourism industry, such as reducing the rate of VAT that accommodation providers have to pay. I appreciate that it is unsurprising that the businesses I have spoken to are in favour of the idea—what business would not like to pay less tax? However, there are serious arguments as to why the unique challenges faced by the tourism sector, and in particular accommodation providers, make a strong case for a targeted solution.
Accommodation providers tell me that they can be fully booked in the high season, but that the low demand in winter months makes for a hard time for them. Many businesses are basically hanging on in the winter months and, if any go under, the effects are felt much further than on that individual business. Some of our competitor countries in Europe support their tourism companies and accommodation providers in that way. One accommodation provider told me that a reduction in VAT from 20% to 15% would undoubtedly allow him to expand his business more rapidly and to employ more staff. By coincidence, however, we are debating this matter just hours after the Government’s Budget statement, so I will leave the issue of VAT rates there for today, but I hope we can consider it in the future.
In summing up, I have some questions for the Government. How do the UK Government contribute to efforts to promote the tourism industry in Scotland in general, and the West Highland Way in particular, in conjunction with the Scottish Government and other stakeholders? Is there an opportunity to do more? What links are being made with European institutions to encourage those tourism opportunities? Is there an opportunity for further marketing and promotion of the West Highland Way with the Scottish Government and other stakeholders, alongside the promotion of other walking routes and sport in general, as alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown)? Finally, may I extend an invitation to all right hon. and hon. colleagues to join me on a parliamentary delegation to walk the West Highland Way this summer? I will be taking names at the end of the debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) on securing the debate. It not only celebrates one of the most scenic walking routes in the world, but recognises the economic importance of the West Highland Way to so many businesses and individuals in so many of our constituencies.
My hon. Friend has made an excellent and compelling case for the economic importance of the West Highland Way. I would argue that of equal importance is its social and cultural role, because for tens of thousands of young Scotsmen and women, particularly those from west-central Scotland and the industrial belt, discovering the west highlands was a transformational experience. When they discovered what was on their doorstep, it changed their lives entirely.
Two examples of people who experienced that are the renowned outdoorsman and adventurer Cameron McNeish and the actor David Hayman, with whom I had the pleasure of making my last ever television series for Scottish Television before coming to this place, which was about David following in the footsteps of that other great hillwalker and rambler, Tom Weir. Both Cameron and David were born and raised in Glasgow, but just one taste of the west highlands of Scotland and their lives were changed forever. They are not unique—far from it. Tens of thousands of urban-dwelling Scots have discovered a love of our outstanding natural environment since the West Highland Way was opened.
I, too, pay tribute to the late Tom Hunter, who, as my hon. Friend said, died only last month. He had the vision and tenacity to make the West Highland Way a reality, and his wonderful legacy will, I am sure, be a great comfort to his family.
I am fortunate to have walked the West Highland Way on a number of occasions, as has my hon. Friend. Despite following exactly the same path, each walk has been a vastly different experience from the one before. I have been washed away in May and burnt to a crisp in October. Equally, I have been burnt to a crisp in May and washed away in October—but braving the Scottish weather is part of the fun and adventure of the West Highland Way. It being Scotland, of course, we have no idea what weather will be coming over the mountains at us.
As I said, I have made the 96-mile trek a number of times but, as with most things in life, it is the first time we do something that we remember most fondly. Having been born in Glasgow in the 1960s and growing up in the 1970s, the West Highland Way was for my generation almost a rite of passage. I would love to think that it still is. It was something we had to do. We wanted to stand with our peer group and say, “I have done it.” I remember the first time I did it, and the circumstances will be familiar to many.
I ask people to picture the scene: the pub, the idea, the dismissal of the idea, the Guinness, the re-emergence of the idea, the Guinness, the solemn vow that we will all do it together, the announcement to everyone in earshot that this time next week we were doing the West Highland Way, the cheers, the slaps on the back, the good wishes and more Guinness. The following morning, the realisation of what I had agreed to and knowing that there was no way to back out—the fear!
Within a week, however, we were ready to go—I say “ready”, but only according to a very rough definition of the word. I had a borrowed tent, a sleeping bag, a rucksack that might have been waterproof when it came back from the desert campaign in 1945, a pair of Dunlop Green Flash sannies—for the benefit of Hansard, some might call those plimsolls—a cagoule, a spare pair of Wrangler denims and, just in case a disco was happening when we reached Fort William, a clean shirt. Add to that half a dozen individually tinfoil-wrapped cheese rolls and a glass bottle of Irn-Bru, which was actually heavier than the tent, all packed into a Fine Fare bag, and we were ready to head off on our great adventure.
What an adventure it was—but, sadly, I can say no more, because a strict omertà is in place. Hon. Members will have to go and experience the adventure for themselves. What I can say is that for a young man who grew up in the east end of Glasgow, it was my window on the world. We could not afford to go on foreign holidays, but on the West Highland Way the world came to us.
The path takes us north along the side of Loch Lomond, through the Trossachs, over the bridge of Orchy, across the Rannoch moor, skirting round the majestic Buachaille Etive Mòr, through Glencoe and up the never more appropriately named Devil’s Staircase over to Kinlochleven, and then down into the final leg to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis.
My hon. Friend reminded me that after coming over the Devil’s Staircase and back down the other side—a big, long descent—at the bottom there in Kinlochleven was the tastiest pint of lager I have ever had. Perhaps he will be speaking about something similar.
I should be saying to my hon. Friend that my stupidity in drinking Guinness and agreeing to do the walk put me off alcohol forever—but, yes, I share a memory of the King’s House hotel in Kinlochleven, at the foot there.
On the way, one would meet so many different nationalities: Dutch, Germans, Swedes, Australians, Canadians, Americans and many more. As I said, it is where the world came to us. Believe me, the sense of achievement when sitting exhausted at Fort William bus station waiting for the bus back to Glasgow is something that I will never forget—but, for the record, sadly, there was no disco for my clean shirt.
I do not have a single unhappy memory of the West Highland Way, even though in the weeks that I was on it I was soaked to the skin, burned to a crisp and eaten alive by midgies, and I had blistered feet and the occasional hangover.
Probably the best advice that I can give is to use a potent mixture of both.
I remember lying in a tent with rain coming down like stair rods and only my hands poking out, trying to cook rice on a wee gas stove. If even eating half-cooked savoury rice in a nylon tent in the pitch dark in the middle of a monsoon does not register as a bad memory, that should give people an idea of what a wonderful experience it was.
As I said, the West Highland Way was and, I sincerely hope, still is a rite of passage for young men and women, particularly those from west-central Scotland. I urge everyone to get out and discover what an incredible country we have and are lucky enough to live in. We should challenge ourselves to do the things that we did not think we could do, and to meet people of other nationalities and cultures whom we would otherwise never meet. Do it. It is on our doorstep. And with any luck, just like Cameron McNeish and David Hayman, you, too, will become addicted to it.
Thank you, Sir Roger, and it is a pleasure once again to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) for securing the debate.
Let us picture the scene: we have just walked for 96 miles from Milngavie right into the heart of Lochaber, which is situated in the most beautiful and awe-inspiring constituency in the country, Ross, Skye and Lochaber. We may have been tired, but we have been invigorated by the experience. We came through the splendour and awe-inspiring Glencoe and at our journey’s end, in Fort William, rises the impressive form of Ben Nevis. Having come this far, it is worth capping it off with an ascent of Scotland’s most majestic peak. As the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, I look forward with my hon. Friend to welcoming the parliamentary delegation and making sure that they complete that epic journey up Scotland’s highest mountain.
A walk on the West Highland Way is a fulfilling experience, and the journey’s end is Scotland’s outdoor capital: the great theatre of outdoor life that is Fort William and Lochaber. The West Highland Way is listed by National Geographic as the world’s great trail, and it is easy to understand why. The benefit to the tourist economy has been mentioned, but another is promotion of a healthy lifestyle, which is integral to the wellbeing of all our citizens. The west highlands are a place to enjoy, relax and walk in and to engage in many other activities, and that is an important part of the desire we all have to promote healthy living.
The many communities close to the West Highland Way are very much engaged with the route’s success. Just this week, young pupils from Kinlochleven High School were down in London representing Scotland in a UK competition with a project based on a litter campaign for the West Highland Way. Having won a Scotland-wide competition, the pupils were showcasing their initiative to encourage walkers to dispose of litter in bins, using apps and digital connectivity to get their message across.
The success of the West Highland Way has been the catalyst for the establishment of more long-distance routes. It is very much an industry that is being created out of the experiences of the West Highland Way. Today there are 28 long-distance routes across Scotland, known as Scotland’s great trails, and in total they provide 1,700 miles of managed paths. It really is possible to do as the Proclaimers say:
“I would walk 500 miles. And I would walk 500 more.”
According to an online survey and counter data information, the direct impact is that an estimated 39,500 walkers complete the whole route each year with a walker spend of as much as £6 million, rising to more than £11.5 million when we add in as many as 120,000 people who complete part of the walk. The respected John Muir Trust suggests that the impact provides a boost of more than £20 million to the highland economy. It is a challenge to arrive at a complete picture given the length of the walk and the size of the area, but it is clearly a considerable boost to the local economy in the west highlands. Although we still have an industrial economy, particularly in Fort William, tourism is very much an anchor for the overall success of the economy.
The west highlands are stunningly beautiful, but what really makes the place special is its people. I was interested to see that the official West Highland Way website even has a section called “Characters Gallery”. Perhaps I should say that it is the characters, more than anything else, that make the west highlands. I was interested that the first person mentioned in the section was described as Scotland’s most famous rogue. That is not my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), but Rob Roy MacGregor, who has been immortalised throughout the nation’s history for his cattle rustling and his feud against the Duke of Montrose. Perhaps that does sound like my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar.
Folk should come and experience the West Highland Way to enjoy the natural beauty of our landscape and to meet our current-day characters, but we need to do more to boost the tourist economy. Of the 28 EU member states, 25 have reduced tourism VAT. Only Denmark and Slovenia have higher rates than the UK. Another opportunity to address that was lost in today’s Budget. Will the Minister ask the Treasury to undertake a study of the matter and the potential beneficial effects on the tourist industry of a VAT reduction? Ireland brought down VAT on tourism from 13.5% to 9% in May 2011, initially as a temporary measure, but it has been sustained. A reduction in tourist VAT would help to grow the tourist economy and would be central to delivering jobs and growth in fragile economic areas, something that is particularly relevant in my rural constituency.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) on securing this debate. Many of the key and general points have been made, but I would like to offer a few reflections on the economic impact of the West Highland Way and, more generally, the benefits that walking brings to our economy and society. If time allows, I will offer a couple of personal reflections and experiences.
I echo the tributes to the late Tom Hunter and the important work that he and others did in establishing the route. It was officially created in October 1980, so it is just a bit younger than I am, as I was born in February 1980. The West Highland Way does not exist in a vacuum. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) said, it is one of 28 national trails and it connects with a range of other designated walking routes. It is possible to walk from my constituency through the Kelvin walkway, following the route of the Clyde, the Kelvin and the Allander to Milngavie and then to Fort William and up the Great Glen Way to my original home town of Inverness. When looking at possible pub crawls, one can start with the great Lios Mor on Dumbarton Road, about which I have spoken in this Chamber before, and finish with all the hostelries that Inverness has to offer, but sadly not the Whitebridge Hotel on the south side of Loch Ness, where I am originally from, because the Great Glen Way goes up the north route. If anyone accepts the invitation to take in the West Highland Way from Ben Nevis all the way to Inverness, I would certainly recommend a visit and some refreshment there.
The economic benefit of outdoor tourism as a whole has been estimated at £2.6 billion. A range of industries and services benefit from camp sites to classy hotels, from wayside cafés to full-blown restaurants, and including the Glen Boyne distillery. I was interested to hear that the chair of the all-party group on Scotch whisky has been teetotal since his experience on the West Highland Way, but that may not be news to the Chamber.
Not only do the West Highland Way and the walking routes in general have an economic benefit to the communities they traverse, but that benefit is also felt in ancillary and support opportunities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber knows, Fort William is the outdoor capital, full of stores with walking and outdoor clothing and various equipment. The same sort of equipment can be purchased in Glasgow, contributing to the economy in my constituency and the wider area. The ancillary economic impact ripples out from one path to others.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) so eloquently described, very few people do the West Highland Way once and then stop walking as a form of recreation. If anything, they get the bug and do it again and again. They need not do it in only one direction; they can go backwards and forwards. I do not know whether walking from Fort William to Glasgow makes it the “Way Highland West”, but there are different opportunities and economic impacts.
That brings me to the importance of walking as a form of transport, exercise and recreation. I once worked for the Ramblers Association, and that experience brought home to me the huge importance of walking to address a range of challenges facing society. Half of all car trips in Scotland are under 5 km. If people had active travel options for those journeys, there would be a considerable benefit for society’s physical wellbeing and that would not only benefit people themselves, but save the health service money. It would be a preventive form of health care. Physical inactivity is estimated to kill seven people a day in Scotland—a statistic that shames us all.
Walking is an inexpensive and accessible form of recreation and a great social leveller, and it provides an opportunity not just to experience the outdoors in all its beauty and magnificence, but to meet and interact with all sorts of people from all over the world who might be walking the same route. To that end, I echo the calls for further support, especially a cut in tourism VAT.
I completed the West Highland Way in 2004. I was fundraising for a trip to Malawi. It is estimated that over £12 million has been generated for charitable causes by people undertaking the walk as a sponsored activity. It is a way to experience Scotland in the raw, not least when the weather really makes its presence felt. Certainly the stretch between Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy brought home to me, as the rain lashed down—it had no discernible impact on the highland cattle, but plenty on the walkers—how in some ways the landscape has barely changed; that we, as human beings, are passing through not only in the literal sense of taking the walk, but in the broader sweep of history; that our ancestors and their communities lived in those lands and had to put up with that kind of weather for many hundreds if not thousands of years, and certainly without the benefit of Gore-Tex or even a Fine Fare plastic bag. Perhaps nothing brings that home more than the train journey back, when days of strenuous exercise flash by. That in itself gives us a certain perspective and shows why it is important to cherish our landscape and access to the outdoors. There is an economic benefit from the West Highland Way, but it is important not just for the sake of that, but for the benefit to broader society and, we hope, future generations.
I join my colleagues in thanking our hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) for calling this debate. Although my contribution comes towards the end of it, I would like to begin by talking about the start of the West Highland Way—both its origins as Scotland’s first long-distance walking route more than 35 years ago and the town of Milngavie in my constituency of East Dunbartonshire, which is the official beginning of the walk.
While walking on the slopes of Ben Lomond after the second world war, the creator of the West Highland Way, Tom Hunter, noted the building developments on the western shores of Loch Lomond and thought of ways to limit the same thing happening on the loch’s eastern shores. As we have heard, Tom was a keen walker himself, loved the outdoors and, together with his wife, Margaret, and their walking companions, decided to design a long-distance walking route from Glasgow to Fort William. The idea of this long-distance, signposted route was not universally supported at the time. It is hard to imagine that now, but there was significant opposition from landowners—quelle surprise, some might say—and the Countryside Commission. However, Tom persevered and the West Highland Way was officially opened on 6 October 1980.
As we have heard, Tom sadly passed away last month at the age of 90. My local paper, the Milngavie & Bearsden Herald, wrote that he was
“a modest man whose achievements were far from ordinary.”
It is evident from this debate that his legacy has benefited the Scottish economy, the Scottish environment and the Scottish people.
Of course, the West Highland Way is traditionally walked south to north. That not only helps to keep the scorching Scottish sun from one’s eyes, but allows walkers to enjoy their time in Milngavie. As many people will know, Milngavie marks the northernmost point of the Roman empire. Having conquered Gaul, Hispania and of course Anglia, the Romans were halted in their tracks by the douce charms of the locals and built the Antonine wall—some say to keep the locals out.
These days, visitors can appreciate the town’s charms and history, relax in cafés and restaurants in Milngavie precinct and of course stock up on supplies before beginning their own adventure. It is an adventure, it has to be said, that many begin in some discomfort. The Romans may have instituted indoor water closets—“cludgie-orums”, as they were known locally in Latin— but the East Dunbartonshire Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative council has yet to catch up on Roman plumbing, refusing, despite an active local campaign, to provide a lavatory for the thousands who pass through the town without being able to pass, literally—not so much spending a penny, but council penny-pinching.
I thank my hon. Friend very much. I recognise a fellow MP’s pain when I hear it.
The West Highland Way plays a significant role in Milngavie’s economy and those of other towns and villages along the route to Fort William. Some 39,500 walkers each year complete the route, along with many thousands of others who walk part of the trail. As we have heard, that generates £5.5 million of tourism revenue and directly supports approximately 200 businesses.
In a wider Scottish context, walking is clearly the most popular nature-based activity for UK residents holidaying in Scotland, with 47% of total UK visitor trips involving some form of walking activity. Studies have shown that long-distance route users are twice as likely to use accommodation, and spend twice as much on food and drink, as the average holidaymaker—although possibly not the average Member of Parliament from Scotland. That provides a huge financial contribution to the hotels, bed and breakfasts and shops in Milngavie and along the route. Many businesses simply would not exist without the West Highland Way. That includes the unique and innovative Travel-Lite, which for 21 years has transported the luggage of walkers from Milngavie to various points along the route for those who do not want to carry their own body weight in spare clothing and equipment.
Conveniently connected to Glasgow city centre through rail, bus and road links, Milngavie also prospers from day visitors who come to walk part of the route on weekends and during holidays. It is not uncommon for many visitors to walk just a wee bit of the route in the morning and to return in the afternoon, spending and contributing to the economy of the beautiful town that I am so fond of, Milngavie, in my constituency.
One of the key factors that led to the inclusion of specific routes in a recent review by Country Walking magazine of Britain’s 50 greatest walks was sufficient variety along a route to maintain interest. One of the most popular routes—possibly the most popular—is the West Highland Way. Within 30 minutes of starting the way, walkers will leave my constituency. They will be able to look out over Glasgow and Strathclyde and look forward to the castles, mountains and distilleries not far in the distance. They will be entering the countryside towards the highlands, having left the bustling city, with busy streets and planes overhead from Europe, North America and the middle east delivering the next cohort of walkers ready to tackle the way.
There is a significant international dimension to the West Highland Way, because it attracts people from all over the world. It is estimated that the Scottish Government’s proposal to reduce air passenger duty will create nearly 4,000 jobs and add £1 billion to the Scottish economy by 2020. That would surely benefit the West Highland Way, among other places in Scotland. However, out of 28 European Union countries, only Denmark and Slovenia have higher VAT rates than the UK. As we have heard, the Republic of Ireland has significantly reduced VAT on tourism, and the Treasury must explore the possibility of reducing VAT to support tourism in Scotland.
We can all agree, I hope, that the West Highland Way is a national icon and its name is immediately recognisable worldwide as being Scottish. It harnesses some of Scotland’s greatest assets—our biggest city, our largest loch, the last remaining Roman wall north of the border and our tallest mountains—and it delivers significant benefits to our economy, environment and society. Its contribution, locally and nationally, is vast.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) and the other hon. Members on informative and colourful speeches. I thank them very much. I have certainly learnt a heck of a lot, and my appetite has been whetted, shall I say?
The hon. Gentleman says that his appetite has been whetted. Another memory has come back to me, and I will give him a tip: do not camp in the middle of Rannoch moor. There is no running water and only 2 million midges for company. That is a tip before he plans his walk on the West Highland Way.
I shall bear that information in mind. I thank the hon. Gentleman very much.
Tourism is clearly of fundamental importance to Scotland. I understand that tourism contributes some £4 billion to the Scottish economy annually. Some 200,000 people, in one way or another, are employed in the tourism industry, and many of those jobs are of benefit to Scotland’s rural areas. One of the key and growing attractions is, as we have heard, the West Highland Way.
There is no doubt at all that there is an increasing realisation that walking is a good form of exercise. Dare I say that I was, believe it or not, one and a half stones heavier than I am now? That is mainly because I have lost some weight walking. I am well known in my constituency for walking with my fiancée and her dog, Alice, and we are keen to embark upon the Wales coastal path, which goes around the whole coast of Wales. It is not as long and, perhaps, not as spectacular as the West Highland Way. Nevertheless, I am told that it is a route worth taking. After successfully doing that, I hope to go to Scotland and experience the joys of the West Highland Way as 39,500 other people do each year.
The West Highland Way is one of the longest footpaths in the whole UK at some 96 miles, which is quite a trek by any standards, and I understand that it has had an interesting history. It opened in October 1980 and is increasingly well renowned throughout the UK. If this debate has done nothing else, it has certainly reinforced how important the West Highland Way is to Scotland and what a great tourist attraction it is for the rest of us who live in the UK.
Walking is of tremendous importance because it brings home to us not only the need for physical fitness, but a great appreciation of our countryside and culture. I take note of all the marvellous attractions that one can encounter en route, and I take on board the concern expressed about midges. I dare say that people have to take preparations to guard themselves against those midges. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the precautions are certainly worth while.
It was my great pleasure to be in Scotland a few weeks ago. I visited a number of distilleries and sampled—in small quantities, of course—the elixir that is produced in them. From personal experience, I can bear testimony to what a wonderful product Scotch whisky is. There has been a modest recognition of that today in the Budget.
That is very kind of the hon. Gentleman. I did not like to mention it myself but, of course, the Scotch Whisky Association has acknowledged the worth of that Welsh whisky and I hope that it will not be too long before it is recognised as one of the great drinks alongside the many great Scotch whiskies.
I mention Scotch whisky because it is a good way not only to extend and reinforce the British and Scottish economy, but to demonstrate what a unique place Scotland is and what tremendous opportunities there are in Scotland. I believe that the West Highland Way is an equal example, in a smaller sort of way and in a different way, of how Scotland can extend itself and show the world what a wonderful country it is. I would certainly like to reinforce my experience with Scotch whisky and visit Scotland again in the not-too-distant future, guarding against midges. Hopefully, my fiancée—I hope she will shortly be my wife—and I can enjoy the wonderful experience of the West Highland Way. I thank the Scottish National party Members very much indeed for bringing the matter to the attention of the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) on securing today’s important debate on the contribution of the West Highland Way to the economy in Scotland. It is a long time since I holidayed in Arisaig—not too far away from the top end of the path—and beheld that magnificent scenery. More recently, I have enjoyed holidays in and around the Trossachs but I confess that I have not yet walked the West Highland Way, unlike the hon. Gentlemen who described their journeys. However, I assure them that, having prepared for the debate, looked at stuff on YouTube and heard other hon. Members’ contributions, the West Highland Way is now on my to-do list for a potential future visit. I must admit that I am not keen on the midges either, so I may have to rely somewhat on the picture painted by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), who gave us a tour that provoked such a wonderful vision.
The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) talked about Ben Nevis. Well, I would like to point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) has climbed it although, admittedly, when he got to the top, it was a bit of a white-out, so he was not able to see all the beautiful scenery of which hon. Members eloquently painted a picture.
One thing that I am very keen to point out to those who want to come and visit the most wonderful Lochaber part of my constituency is that we have all sorts of facilities for all people, depending on their aptitude and climbing ability. For some people, Ben Nevis is a little bit of a challenge to get up, but Aonach Mòr is next to it and there are gondolas to take people up there for those who would like to have a pleasant day out among the mountains of Scotland. We can cater for people in all sorts of ways so that they can enjoy the splendour of the mountains of the Lochaber area, and still enjoy the food and whisky when they come down in the evening.
I hope that this is not seen as a commercial. Once people have climbed Ben Nevis and finished the West Highland Way, something else that I can recommend from experience is taking the West Highland line from Fort William to Mallaig. It is fantastic scenery and one of the great railways of the world to complement one of the great walks of the world.
Sir Roger, as you say, it has been an elegant commercial break. It sounds as if we should have more debates on this matter.
Coming from a constituency such as mine—Suffolk Coastal—where tourism and outdoor leisure activities play such an important role in the everyday lives of people who work in businesses and tourism, I share the view of the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) that helping people to enjoy the natural environment in an easy, pleasant way is mutually beneficial for people’s health and wellbeing, and for the local economy. He was right to stress the benefits of walking more generally.
The debate is particularly timely as we celebrate Scottish Tourism Week. Scotland is revered around the world for its outstanding and varied scenery, so it should come as no surprise to learn that the country’s natural environment is increasingly being developed as a key tourism asset. In the case of the West Highland Way, I have seen a report from Scottish Natural Heritage that suggests that up to 30,000 people—we have heard about potentially more—complete the whole route each year and a further 60,000 people walk a part of it. Another report suggests that the West Highland Way generates an economic benefit of £7.5 million, although we have heard contributions suggesting that it is even greater than that.
The West Highland Way is 96 miles long, and stretches from Milngavie to Fort William, skirting the shores of Loch Lomond en route. It is managed by a partnership of councils and the national park authority for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, and I pay tribute to them for keeping up this wonderful, great route. I also want to praise the groups of volunteers who help to keep the West Highland Way so special. The Conservation Volunteers from Stirling made improvements to the paths in December. There are volunteer rangers right along the trail and, of course, there are other voluntary groups such as the Lomond Mountain Rescue Team in Drymen, which is there to try to help people when they get into difficulty. Volunteers help with the many events that use the West Highland Way, whether it is raising money for charity or events such as the Caledonian Challenge, which is a particularly interesting use of the route that I expect will bring more people to the area and support the tourist economy.
More broadly, nature-based tourism makes a significant contribution to the wider Scottish tourism sector and economy. The main findings from a recent study by Scottish Natural Heritage indicates that nature-based tourism is worth £1.4 billion a year to Scotland’s economy. Some 9,000 full-time equivalent jobs are reliant on it and tourist spending on nature-based activities is worth nearly 40% of all tourism spending in Scotland. Furthermore, recent figures from VisitScotland show that more than 720,000 trips were made by residents of Great Britain to Scotland’s national parks, accounting for 6% of all Great British overnight trips in Scotland and a visitor expenditure of more than £140 million.
On that note, tourism in Scotland is, by and large, a devolved matter for the Scottish Government. The hon. Member for Stirling referred to his hon. Friends in the Scottish Parliament and the work they have done to promote the West Highland Way. Tourism is vital to Scotland’s economy and showcases the country’s culture and heritage to the world. However, the UK Government are very interested in what happens in Scotland. In the 2014 autumn statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer recognised another Scottish natural icon when he announced £2 million of funding over four years for VisitBritain to promote Loch Ness and the surrounding area to international markets.
We have heard that “Spirit of Scotland” is a theme for tourism week and, as has already been said, anyone who walks the West Highland Way can be fortified along the route at the Glengoyne, Loch Lomond and Ben Nevis distilleries. As they march along, we have heard that they may be listening to the Proclaimers and thinking of the 500 miles—fortunately, the path is only 96 miles—that they need to walk. I would have thought that the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber might have wanted to promote Runrig as an alternative, given the former career of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). In today’s Budget, the tax duty on whisky was frozen, which I hope is another contribution to the benefits along the route.
Scotland’s tourism success does not happen in isolation. The UK’s domestic markets remain Scotland’s biggest, and Scotland is able to benefit from wider UK activities and support to attract more tourists across its border. Recent figures from VisitScotland show that, in 2014, more than 15.5 million overnight tourism trips were taken in Scotland, for which visitor expenditure totalled £4.8 billion. People from within the UK account for the majority of tourism volume and value in Scotland, with 12.5 million tourism trips in 2014, worth £2.9 billion.
At home, Scotland benefits from strong activity by the national tourism body, VisitScotland, to promote Scotland. Abroad, VisitBritain is responsible for promoting Scotland as part of Britain’s joined-up offer to international markets, but that is a two-way process, with VisitScotland and the other devolved nations’ national tourism agencies having access to VisitBritain’s overseas network to support their own campaigns and messages.
The Government recently launched their five-point plan for tourism in the UK, which is designed to boost growth, tap potential and encourage visitors beyond London to other parts of the UK, as has been mentioned. As part of the five-point plan the UK Government have committed to working more closely with the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and, where appropriate, Northern Ireland to enhance collaboration between their respective tourism bodies. We also want to ensure that stretching targets are set for VisitBritain to bring increased numbers of international visitors to all the nations and regions of the UK.
I am interested in what the Minister is saying, and I applaud her remarks. It is important that the Governments here in Westminster and in Edinburgh work together on such matters. Although we have been talking about some of the industry’s attractions not only in the highlands but elsewhere, there are two things that concern me to which we must give a higher degree of importance. One is connectivity in all its forms—transport connectivity and digital connectivity. We must ensure that we are world leading in connectivity. It is important that we recognise that we are part of a global marketplace and that people have a choice in where they go. We must also invest in the service culture to ensure that we are world leading in all these things. Connectivity and services are important in ensuring that we demonstrate, and can advance, our leadership in the tourist economy. The two Governments need to work together in order to do that.
The Government are committed to investing in infrastructure and transport connectivity. The High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill is still going through the House and, in time, HS2 will improve journey times to western Scotland. As has been mentioned, the Scottish Government intend to halve air passenger duty by 2021, and Scotland will be given that power through the Scotland Bill, which will hopefully soon become the Scotland Act.
Another important area of promotion is the Government’s “GREAT campaign,” which is a cross-Government initiative to promote the UK internationally as a great place to visit, study and do business. It is the Government’s most ambitious marketing campaign ever, and it aims to showcase the very best of what Britain has to offer the world under a single brand. Scotland features prominently in the campaign, with many varied images of aspects of Scotland to capture the imagination of potential overseas visitors and investors. From the great outdoors to the Edinburgh military tattoo; from Scotch whisky distillers to high-tech producers and universities; constructions new and old, such as the Kelpies, the Glenfinnan viaduct and the Forth railway bridge; the set of “Harry Potter” and wider film production; extreme sports; fashion; and fine dining.
Members have asked a number of questions. VAT on tourism came up several times, with reference to the experience in the Republic of Ireland, which cut VAT on tourism in 2011. At the moment, the Chancellor is unconvinced the measure would work here, but we are interested in doing some research into the benefits of Ireland’s experience, and I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who has responsibility for tourism, has written to the Chancellor to request further research. On European links, many visitors to the West Highland Way are essentially domestic, but the VisitBritain campaigns are targeting Germany, France and the Netherlands.
Broadband was mentioned earlier, and I understand that the First Minister committed at a conference last weekend to get fast broadband to all. The Prime Minister has committed to a universal service obligation for broadband, recognising the importance of connectivity, and the UK Government have already committed more than £120 million to the roll-out of superfast broadband in Scotland.
I am afraid that there is little we can do to help the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) with his campaign for a lavatory in Milngavie, but I wish him well on that matter.
The words of VisitScotland’s tourism prospectus from 2007 still stand:
“Visitors to Scotland come for an experience that is rooted in our hills and glens, our castles and towns, our history, our culture, our way of life and our people. Visitors participate in any number of activities, pursue many different interests, see many different places but they do so against a distinctive backdrop that is the country of Scotland.”
The West Highland Way epitomises that description, which could also be said of other long-distance walking routes across Scotland. Such routes are increasingly popular and, as has been mentioned, attract thousands of visitors to the UK each year. In isolation, the economic benefits derived from people walking the West Highland Way may be modest. Nevertheless, such activity represents just one aspect of the
“distinctive backdrop that is the country of Scotland.”
The sum total of that tourism spend is worth some £5 billion to the Scottish economy annually.
Such debates bring to light the diversity of the tourism sector, not only in Scotland but in the British Isles. Of course, I encourage people to visit Suffolk—I am sure, Sir Roger, that you encourage people to visit your part of Kent. However, I also encourage visitors to travel extensively across the UK, whether that be to the Pembrokeshire coast, the Lake district or North Berwick, on the east coast of Scotland, which I particularly recommend after holidaying there in 2014, and which I learned today is the home town of one of the civil servants who helped me to prepare for this debate.
As part of the UK, tourism in Scotland benefits from the “best of both worlds”, with dedicated support from the Scottish Government and VisitScotland at home, as well as benefiting from the work of the UK’s wide-reaching embassy network and VisitBritain in promoting the UK abroad.
Before I finish, I add my tribute to the person who came up with the idea for the West Highland Way, Tom Hunter. Sadly, as has already been said, Mr Hunter passed away last month at the age of 90, which—dare I say it?—is a testament to the healthy lifestyle that he obviously enjoyed. A keen walker with his wife, Margaret, his love for the natural environment combined with his walking. Without his passion, the route would not be what it is today. Prospective walkers may be interested in his book, “A Guide to the West Highland Way”. We can all thank him for his vision and for leaving a fine legacy.
This has been a good debate to celebrate the West Highland Way and its importance to tourism and the economy in Scotland, and I look forward to my visit there.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the contribution of the West Highland Way to the economy in Scotland.