Challenge is to bring people back to Loch Ness for sustainable tourism – former Visit Inverness Loch Ness chief executive Graeme Ambrose
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It’s wet, wild and cold as we make our way head first into the prevailing wind battering our faces on the exposed moor. Below our feet there is a good inch or two of heavy, waterlogged snow.
We can’t hear each other for the flapping of our waterproofs as we brace ourselves for the next onslaught of driving sleet and snow.
Yet Graeme Ambrose is well and truly in his element. Invigorating and uplifting might be how he would describe such conditions as we are dealt on this February morning, but there is another reason he is so happy.
For below that soggy snow is a path that has come to define his life’s work – or at least that of the last 20 years, since he threw in a job in retail management and moved north to start up a tourism business on the south side of Loch Ness.
The South Loch Ness Trail was finally completed in 2018, seven years after its launch when the path came to an abrupt end in the hills above Loch Tarff, just over five miles short of Fort Augustus.
Graeme remembers poring over maps along with the now leader of Highland Council, Margaret Davidson, who along with her husband Donald runs a garden nursery at Abriachan on the north side of the loch.
“It was pretty obvious to us that it wouldn’t take too much to link a lot of the paths down the south side and you would create this trail,” Graeme told me, as we warmed up in the Caledonian Canal Visitor Centre in Fort Augustus after our run.
At the time, Graeme was working for Destination Loch Ness (DLN) a couple of days a week on top of running his own bed and breakfast business, which gave him the time to turn the trail into a reality. But that last section into Fort Augustus had to wait for a number of factors to fall into place.
DLN ran out of steam but reinvented itself as a Tourism Business Improvement District (BID) under the name Visit Inverness Loch Ness (VILN), a process which in itself took up a couple of years.
“When we became a BID, one of the first things in the business plan was to finish that last 10km down from Loch Tarff to Fort Augustus,” said Graeme.
“The real crux of it was that although it was only 10km it was going to cost an absolute fortune to do, if you think about the terrain we’ve just come down. So, for two or three years we did bits and pieces but it was only when the Stronelairg wind farm got the go-ahead and Margaret Davidson got it into the planning conditions that SSE put in a trail alongside the road.
“Our project manager Phil Thompson was then appointed to oversee it and we got that Rolls-Royce section of trail up there, so suddenly it all became possible for us to do this.”
With this final piece of the jigsaw in place, it has opened up a long-awaited ambition by completing a circuit – by including the existing Great Glen Way on the north side of the loch – which is now being marketed as the Loch Ness 360. Already proving a big draw, the trail will host a new event in May when the first Loch Ness 360 Challenge takes place on the 80-mile loop.
It offers a choice of formats, with an ultra-marathon, three marathons in three days or a mountain bike challenge. But for keen runner Graeme, it’s about more than adding yet another event to an already crowded marketplace.
“It’s a way of promoting the trail, and ultimately that promotion is about increasing awareness and getting people who will come back, as well as showing what the area has to offer,” he said. “Right from when we finished the South Loch Ness Trail the plan was to link it up and do an event on it – what type of event we weren’t entirely sure.
“I was very much saying we should do an ultra-marathon, that’ll sort them out! But then I talked to Frazer Coupland at No Fuss Events and he suggested the three-day thing because it’s becoming quite popular in the States. They see it as a festival of running.
“VILN is not in this for money – we're just in it to get people to stay longer and come back. Breaking even or having a bit of money left over to spend on maintenance is all we want, so in that sense we are different to other events too.”
Challengers are in for a treat, with a route that starts and finishes in Dores and follows the High Level Great Glen Way through remarkable scenery on the north side of the loch before climbing up to Loch Tarff and continuing on the South Loch Ness Trail back to Dores.
Graeme said: “It’s round Loch Ness yet it takes you away from Loch Ness, it enables you to see other parts and you get a real sense of remoteness in places.
“When you turn off to go up the Fair Haired Lad’s Pass you never see anybody, and up the Corkscrew at Inverfarigaig it can be pretty bleak. Equally there are sections that people walk a lot but it’s never crowded. Between Whitebridge and Foyers I think is beautiful, and there’s huge variation.”
For all of Graeme’s single-minded focus on the trail, it is the spin-offs it can create for tourism in the area that really fuel his passion.
“The whole thing about this is it is not about mass tourism, this is absolutely about sustainable tourism. Yes, it will bring more people but hopefully these people are going to stay for longer,” he said.
“Loch Ness has never been able to address the fundamental issue that people just come for short trips. If that’s going to change, we have to change what it offers, but also people’s perception of the destination.
“That means marketing it differently, and to market it differently, you’ve got to change it on the ground.
“Sometimes I say I wish we were the Cairngorms because it is known for outdoor activities – if we’re going to change things here and make it more sustainable, the trail is the obvious starting place for that, but it’s what will come on the back of it hopefully.
“I can’t speak for all the businesses but you look at the change in places like Foyers already. Cameron’s Tea Room is one of the best ones where cyclists, walkers and runners head to. Lyn and Donald Forbes run the campsite and also provide outdoor activities, so I think the change in Foyers has been huge, more so than in any of the other villages around Loch Ness.”
Starting to see that change happen on the ground is giving Graeme, who retired as chief executive of VILN last summer but continues to be involved on a consultancy basis, great satisfaction.
"There were a lot of people involved in it,” he admits, “but when you live and work in the area, and it’s right on my doorstep, I get a great kick out of it when I go out and see people walking on the trail and they say ‘this is really nice’.
“There is such a demand for this sort of thing now and it’s a much more sustainable type of tourism because generally people will stay longer and come back with families and that sort of stuff.
“People’s expectations have moved from what you’d call ‘product’ to ‘experience’, so it’s not enough to just have Urquhart Castle and the exhibition centre, and that’s what the trail gives it.
“It’s like us being out there this morning – it's fantastic, to have the wind blowing, there’s nothing better. And that’s what people want now, an experience rather than just a list of places to visit.”
‘Be careful what you wish for’
The former chief executive of Visit Inverness Loch Ness wants to see radical action to support the ‘right type’ of tourism in the area.
Graeme Ambrose said that, with global tourism on the increase, the industry must consider what it is offering and who it is attracting to the Highlands.
Citing the example of the surge in popularity since the launch of the North Coast 500, he suggested a more strategic approach was needed to maintain the balance between bringing people here and keeping the essence of the place.
“The idea [of the NC500] was around for years and I don’t personally think there was too much thought for the impact it would have,” he said.
“I know the figures of £22 million benefit and that’s tremendous, but be careful what you wish for.
“In an industry where global tourism is on the increase, what type of tourism do we want to have here in the Highlands and how do we cope with it?
“In an ideal world around Loch Ness, part of me thinks we want people to stay here, enjoy the environment and get out – so let’s be radical here and do something like ban cars down the south side of the loch and have just cyclists!
“That would change people’s perceptions of why you come to Loch Ness and the whole marketing would change, rather than what we’re doing at the moment: Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness exhibition centre and then away.”
He also believes that something has to be done to raise money for tourism infrastructure, but said that a ‘bed tax’ – the transient visitor levy – wasn’t necessarily the right way to raise funds.
Despite the challenges facing the tourism sector at the moment, Mr Ambrose remains optimistic for the future of an area he has put his heart and soul into.
He said: “I’m optimistic about it but it does need a real strategy for Loch Ness – I know everybody hates the word strategy but we need something that communities can buy into; a strategy that sets out where we’re going, what we need to do and how we are going to make this destination attractive for 20, 30 years ahead; how we embrace low-carbon and all that goes along with it.”