The opportunities for adventure tourism businesses in the Highlands and Islands
Published 04/11/2021 by Seb Shingler 7 min read
Published 04/11/2021 by Seb Shingler 7 min read
When I was growing up, our family summer holidays tended to involve a trip to a national park and a lot of walking. I’ve got a strong memory of heading up a mountain on an old chairlift with my parents and kicking one of my wellies off halfway up, probably in the hope that we would loop straight around at the top and head back down. No such luck though: my parents weren’t in the habit of letting stroppy kids (particularly their own) ruin their plans, so I had to walk to the summit and back with only one welly on.
You might expect that experiences like this would have steered me in the direction of a life spent indoors, feet firmly ensconced in two slippers. But those that know me will testify to the reality being quite different. This early exposure to the outdoors planted a seed that has only grown up and out as I’ve got older.
As a teenager, I was lucky to be part of a close-knit Scouts group and I would often spend weekends camping, sitting around a fire with my friends. Our Scout leaders were informal and relaxed and let us take just the right amount of risk required by teenagers; I suspect this supervised risk-taking coupled with access to outside space in which to blow off steam kept us from getting into mischief elsewhere. I loved the outdoors and, at that point in my life, believed I could never work behind a desk, so joining one of the armed forces seemed like the only path my life could take. But after doing some research into university courses, I discovered the outdoor industry. I didn’t previously know a career as an outdoor instructor was possible! This opened many more avenues and led to me being accepted to study Outdoor Adventure Leadership and Management at the University of Worcester, feeling like I’d hit the jackpot.
After graduation, I left the UK to work for a large outdoor education and expedition provider based in Hong Kong. My years in Asia provided a wealth of experience with different cultures and geographies, providing a brilliant opportunity to develop my skills as part of a large multi-national community. Upon returning home, I was employed as a freelance outdoor instructor for multiple organisations across the country. As well as working with corporate groups, tourists, and at-risk youth, I began leading four-week international expeditions to destinations around the globe for secondary school students. After a handful of trips, this expedition provider offered me a new role as destination manager for Asia, which meant giving up the freelance outdoor lifestyle I’d thoroughly embraced. A desk job had snuck up on me! In reality, I relished the opportunity to create a larger impact across a wider number of participants: instead of helping hundreds of people enjoy outdoor experiences each year, I now had a central role in the delivery of quality overseas outdoor and adventure experiences to thousands. It also gave me time back to enjoy my own outdoor passions.
I’m a keen mountain climber. As well as bringing joy and a huge sense of personal achievement, this has helped me foster a host of other skills that I use daily - things like self-confidence, resilience and teamwork. I feel that when people challenge themselves in the outdoors, or even just spend time in nature, they develop a great sense of personal achievement and begin to realise things about themselves they didn’t previously think where possible. You have to get through all these little hard times - like being out in a day of endless rain, or having to walk much further than you expected - and at the end of it all, you learn to say ‘I can’. Over time, that attitude seeps into everything you tackle. I’ve seen it happen countless times in the outdoor education sector; it’s the thing that gives me the biggest kick of all and the reason I love this industry.
When I was working to send students on educational expeditions to countries such as Cambodia, Borneo, India and Mongolia, I saw how small family-run businesses and their local communities could really benefit through our custom; it was great for their local economy. But I also became aware of the negative impacts of running these trips on great scale. We often sent students to small, rural communities which had begun to rely on our visits each year, and on top of that, there was an obvious environmental cost. I started to see that adventure tourism needs to be managed properly so that it’s sustainable, i.e., to the long term benefit of both visitors and hosts, as well as helping to preserve and protect those beauty spots that we often travel for.
It feels like all the elements of my experience in the outdoors have woven together to bring me to the point I’m at now. I’m employed by HIE to develop adventure tourism in the Highlands and Islands sustainably, giving a boost to a region that offers some of the finest outdoor experiences in the world. I also run a training business with my wife, focused on promoting the Leave No Trace organisation and advancing environmental ethics in the UK, and I spend a lot of my free time enjoying the outdoor activities that led me onto this path in the first place.
In my role with HIE, I’ve had the opportunity to work with over 90 adventure businesses based in the Highlands and Islands, and I see massive opportunities for adventure tourism in the region. Since lockdown, people have a new appreciation for nature and a drive to get out into rural environments, and we’ve got that in spades here. In particular, there’s a real market for the simpler, more comfortable outdoor activities, like easy walks to observe wildlife, cooking around a fire or taking part in beginner water activities. Businesses that can tailor their activities to suit the older generation - who have the golden combination of time and money - will never be short of customers.
Attracting these nature and outdoors focused visitors to the region has other benefits too. Research has shown that they stay longer and spend more than other types of tourist, and they also tend to look after the place while they’re here. I’ve seen this time and time again - when people spend time outdoors, it drives change in all areas of their life. They often start making environmentally conscious decisions such as recycling more, consuming less, or growing insect-friendly flowers in their garden.
Looking back, I now feel grateful that my parents took me to national parks over theme parks on our holidays - it’s definitely one of the reasons I have ended up working in the outdoor industry, and it laid a foundation of confidence in an outdoor setting that allowed me to try more adventurous activities as I grew up. These are the things I love to do now. And I’ve discovered that desk jobs aren’t so bad after all. I wouldn’t change anything about my journey so far - except maybe one thing. Nowadays I’d be heading off back down that mountain to collect my lost welly.
To find out more about HIE’s Let’s Grow Adventure Tourism programme, visit www.hie.co.uk/adventure-tourism
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