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Lords Diary: Viscount Thurso on responsible tourism and why COP 26 must succeed

Lords Diary: Viscount Thurso on responsible tourism and why COP 26 must succeed

Decorated bus shelter, Shetland | Alamy

4 min read

Last week was dominated by the horrendous news from Afghanistan. Just about everything that could go wrong seems to have done so, and the sense of helplessness towards the vulnerable people who have suffered so much is everywhere. As a wise old Thursonian said to me in Tesco, “There is nothing to do but pray.”

The last week of recess is always a rush and it seems to get more so every year; and of course the new term starts without restrictions in the south – although here in Scotland facemasks are still mandatory in many venues. As chair of the VisitScotland Board, my main task has been writing my foreword for our annual report and accounts. Reflecting back to last year we were three weeks into the first lockdown, vaccination was a distant dream and there was a palpable sense of unease, and in many cases downright fear. Now, 18 months later, we have the vaccination programme rolling out and there is hope that a return to something more normal is actually happening.

On a personal level, my wife and I have now spent the longest continuous time in the same house for more than 30 years and we have discovered we rather like each other – which is a great relief. I have also spent the longest continuous time in my home since I left for boarding school in January 1962. It has been horrible not to be able to see our children and grandchildren but living at home and rediscovering so much has been an unexpected bonus of lockdown. We are both curiously apprehensive about the future and my going back to commuting regularly. We feel this situation underlines the mental health challenges that many less fortunate people will face in the workplace when they go back. As an employer, supporting those who work for me is one of my top priorities.

The last week of recess is always a rush and it seems to get more so every year

The Scottish elections earlier this year produced a completely new set of ministers looking after tourism and events, on top of which there has been quite a reshaping of the Scottish machinery of government, with the result that all the officials have changed as well. Last week I was busy meeting officials and briefing them for the future. In particular, I have been keen to brief both officials and ministers on the work we have been doing on “Responsible Tourism,” as it all stems from an initiative I started three years ago. It has two strands. First is to green the industry by reducing carbon consumption through transport and accommodation, and helping businesses to become net-zero. The second is to work with communities to get the tourism they want. Tourism is an economic activity which should give the maximum economic benefit for the minimum environmental and social disruption.

Living on the North Coast 500 route, I see the benefits such as shops and other facilities being able to stay open in remote communities through visitor footfall, but I also see the negatives of irresponsible wild camping and congested sites and roads. “Responsible tourism” is not therefore a fix, but rather an approach and values that will allow us to work with industry over time to produce a genuinely sustainable product. I want tourists to be part of the solution, not the problem.

We also have been experiencing drought conditions and have had no serious rainfall since mid-May. It has made a huge impact on the blanket bog which is tinder dry. The combination of cold and no rain has been very difficult for wildlife as the insects they depend on simply haven’t appeared in any real numbers and there is nothing to drink. On top of that, two released white tailed eagles have arrived and killed or frightened off the golden eagle pair that have been there all my life. Man has much to answer for and this shows why COP26 must succeed. 

Viscount Thurso is a Liberal Democrat peer

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