TOURISTS flocking to the Highlands to drive the North Coast 500 have delivered a £10 million boost to the region’s economy, it has been claimed.
A study carried out by the University of Glasgow’s training and employment research unit said the Highlands had seen an extra 29,000 visitors and £9 million had been added to the local economy because of the scenic route during its first full year in 2016.
Economists and tourism bodies are busy crunching the numbers for the not yet finished 2017 season but Inverness Chamber of Commerce chief executive Stewart Nicol believes the figures will has increased by at least 10% to more than £10m – the equivalent of a £20,000 boost for each mile of the route – after one of the busiest ever summers for tourists in the north.
“It has been an exceptionally busy summer,” he said.
“The North Coast 500 has been an outstanding success, it has really captured people’s imaginations.
“There has been a rise in the number of international visitors coming to Inverness and the route has been a key element of the success.
“There will be tourism specialists going over the numbers now and I’d expect an uplift of 10% on last year, if not a lot more. We’re expecting it to break the £10 million mark.”
The route was launched in 2015 by the North Highland Initiative. It features roads on the Black Isle, in Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross, starting and finishing in Inverness.
It includes several challenging ascents and descents, including the Bealach na Ba at Applecross, which rises more than 2,000 feet over four miles.
Across the region, local businesses have repeated the claim that they expect 2017 will top last year’s numbers, which were already considered to be extraordinarily busy.
Dennis Jeffries, co-manager of the Bettyhill Hotel in Bettyhill, Sutherland, said: “This year has been very good for us and it’s even been an improvement on last year.
“It is phenomenal what the North Coast 500 has done for the area, it’s a real game-changer.
“We’re now in a position where we can look at what investments to our hotel to improve what we can offer because of the extra interest.”
Ron Main, who runs the North Coast 500 Moto Experience motorcycle hire company in Inverness, said there was no doubt the roads around the main attractions of the route were busier.
“It’s been a promising year for us,” he said.
“The key points seem to be really busy and tourists are still raving about how great it is.
“A lot of my customers are Americans and Canadians but I have seen a lot of people from continental Europe bringing their own bikes across to drive the route.”
In July, The Sunday Post reported that Borders couple David and Sharon McLean had ditched the rat race and brought Britain’s most remote service station after falling in love with the North Coast 500.
The brave decision paid off as their fledging business in Kinlochewe, Wester Ross, has been mobbed with supercar drivers and hordes of adventure motorcyclists.
David said: “It’s been a very good season for us. It’s really exceeded our hopes for the first year.
“I’d say the majority are UK-based that are doing the route but there are plenty from further afield too, we had boys from New Delhi who passed through and had rented motorbikes to do it.”
The 2016 research was commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and showed an average 26% rise in visitor numbers to the areas of the Highlands involved in the route.
If the anecdotes from the 2017 season are anything to go by, that trend looks certain to continue.