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North Coast 500 set to go in new directions

By Philip Murray

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Corrieshalloch Gorge, south of Ullapool, is on the North Coast 500 route.
Corrieshalloch Gorge, south of Ullapool, is on the North Coast 500 route.

FOOD and drink tourism trails could be developed as the creators of the North Coast 500 route seek to build on the success of its first year.

Inspired by iconic roads such as Route 66 in the USA and the Great Ocean Road in Australia, the route became an overnight success when it launched in the north Highlands last spring.

More than 1.5 million page impressions had already been logged by its official website before the North Coast 500 even went live.

Global coverage quickly followed, with numerous write-ups in major international tourism magazines as well as in-flight publications from the likes of British Airways and American Airlines.

And the route’s creator, the North Highland Initiative, has been left stunned by the strength of interest. The body’s chairman, David Whiteford, said confidence among the north Highland tourism industry has soared as a result.

“The past year’s success has massively exceeded our expectations,” he said. “VisitScotland’s own figures say that 620 million people around the world now know of the route.

“Press all over the world have been running with it. The reaction has been phenomenal.”

He cited one distiller in the far north who is now planning on launching a new visitor centre, in part to capitalise upon the NC500’s success.

Mr Whiteford now hopes to build on the route’s branding in the coming year and is hopeful that the route will provide fertile ground for spin-offs among the local food and drink trade.

“I’d like to market it as a good road for foodies,” he said. “A taste tourism trail off the NC500 is very much on the cards.

“We want to see more made of those opportunities. The Highlands has got some fabulous eateries around the route that were not there just 10 years ago.

“These businesses are creating top food using local products and keeping their creations in the area rather than selling it away to other countries.

“It is also good to see that people and communities that are not on the route are creating opportunities too. The Black Isle has really taken to the road. They are not on it but want people to come off it there.

“People are getting the confidence to invest.”

Mr Whiteford is hopeful that such moves will help to develop the industry outside the traditional tourist months and is eager for off-season traders to capitalise on the route.

“Let us kill the idea of a ‘season’,” he said. “Let’s say ‘all year – keep going’. We want to be creating opportunities for people all year round. There are all sorts of positives and possibilities.”

Among his key goals in coming months will be growing the North Coast 500 brand.

“We want to create NC500 products to help with the momentum of it. Clothing. All sorts of different products could be branded up. The goal of that is to create tourism that can self-sustain and help promote.”

Mike Smith, the manager of the Inverness Business Improvement District, is confident about the route’s continuing success.

“We were delighted to host the launch of the NC500 in May at the Inverness Classic Vehicle Show,” he said.

“We think the NC500 has done an incredible deal in giving exposure to the north Highlands and, obviously with the start and finish in Inverness, it must be giving a boost to our area.

“I think 2016 is a real chance for this to be expanded and greater awareness of the route and I am sure will grow and grow over the years.”

n The 516-mile route begins and ends in Inverness at the castle.

It follows a course along the Beauly Firth and then out west through Achnasheen and Lochcarron before climbing over the Bealach na Ba. After this it turns north and traces most of Scotland’s north-west coast through Ullapool to Durness.

It then skirts the far north coast before turning south from John O’Groats, past Golspie and Tain and finishes back at the Highland capital.

For more details visit www.northcoast500.com.

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