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Western Isles Tourism

The potential impact of the windfarms on existing island businesses is a great concern to many. Promoters of the developments have consistently downplayed the issue, claiming that impacts will be negligible, and even that the 'biggest windfarms in the world' could become a major tourist attraction.

However, the fact is that the high quality and peaceful environment of the Outer Hebrides, the unspoilt scenery, birdlife, and beaches remain a major draw for visitors.  In 2006, 143,402 recreational visitors came to the islands (the equivalent of over 5 times the current Western Isles population) supporting around 1000 jobs, and injecting over £36 million into the islands economy. Fifty two thousand business visitors contributed a further £13.8 million.

It remains open to question whether tourists will pay to travel to Lewis to visit a degraded, industrialised and noisy moorland, especially those visitors coming by road, who will already have had the 'dubious pleasure' of passing through the many hundreds of wind turbines that are currently planned accross mainland Scotland.  This is likely to be particularly acute during the construction phase, when the island will be blighted by heavy machinery, and blasting etc. It is hard to see how Lewis will maintain its image as an attractive destination.  

Should the windfarms be consented it would be hoped that some island accomodation providers might benefit in the short term, (although it is unclear whether construction workers would be housed in on-site camps, which is often the case with large construction projects, particularly as the Western Isles are already experiencing a chronic housing shortage). However there will be costs to other businesses which depend on visitor expenditure, potentially affecting other areas further afield if overall visitor numbers are depressed.

In the long term, the status of the proposals, as amongst the most environmentally damaging windfarms in the country is likely to severely limit any opportunity for marketing them as a 'green' attraction.  

The following are extracts from the recent "Outer Hebrides Tourism Facts and Figure Update: Review of 2006 season".  The full report can be downloaded from the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar website : http://www.cne-siar.gov.uk/factfile/economy/index.htm

• The tourism sector in the Outer Hebrides is of significant importance to the local economy, contributing around 15.6% to the Gross Regional Domestic Product (GRDP) of the Outer Hebrides.

• Tourism accounts for 9% of all jobs in the area and many self employed posts.  An estimated 1000 FTEs are supported by tourism in the Outer Hebrides, including direct employees, self emplyed, indirect and induced employment.

• In common with Scotland as a whole, tourism in the Outer Hebrides has grown in recent years. Visitor numbers (including people on holiday, visiting friends and relatives (VFR) and business visitors) to the Outer Hebrides are estimated to have increased by 8.9% since 2002, with an overall 27% increase in tourism expenditure.

Comparison of Volume and Value of Tourism between 2002 and 2006

% change
Total Visitors
Up 8.9%
Total Visitor Spend
£39.3 million
£49.9 million
Up 27%

• Stornoway remains the most popular entry point, accounting for 55% of arrivals from the mainland during the year (compared with 56% in 2002).

• The tourism industry in general employs a higher than all-industry average proportion of females and part-time workers, and this is particularly the case in the Outer Hebrides, where 65% of tourism jobs are part-time, and 65% are held by females. (In the HIE area, however, the all-industry average for part-time workers is higher than that of the tourism industry.)

Estimating the impact of windfarms on tourism

Estimating the impact of major windfarms on the Lewis tourism economy is not easy. Wind promoters argue that no quantitative effects have been recorded to date, and that surveys of tourist attitudes indicate that the majority of visitors would not be put off by windfarms.  With both of these statements we would agree.    

There is no sound contemporary research we we are aware of which addresses the potential impact of windfarms on the scale proposed for Lewis.  The studies that have been undertaken to date reflect the small number of existing windfarms which were constructed during the 1990's and early part of this decade, which generally had few, relatively small turbines, and were sparsely distributed. Visitors were typically asked to give their opinion towards existing and future windfarm developments.

A review of of the available studies found that between 9% and 25% of tourists reported that windfarms would deter them from visiting and area, and the average across the studies was 17% avoidance.  Applying this to the 2006 Western Isles visitor economy would result in the loss of 24,378 visitors and £6,128,872 per year based on recreational visitors only. The brunt of any damage would obviously be mainly felt on Lewis where the windfarms are located, which is also the largest tourist sector, currently providing 39% of the isles visitor accomodation, while Harris provides 23% and the southern Isles 38% between them.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar did commission researchers who attempted to undertake a quantitative examination of the impact of existing windfarms on 5 tourist economies.  Unfortunately the study suffered from a lack of suitable comparison areas, which frustrated any conclusions.  Turbines were typically much smaller and a number of the areas had policies controlling the level of development or restricting turbines in areas valued for landscape and environment or tourism.  In three out of the five areas studied, growing resistance to any increase in the size of developments was reported.

There were also problems comparing the tourist economies.  In 3 out of 5 areas there was no local information available and the researchers had to resort to wider regional data. In some cases the tourist profile data was markedly different to those on the Western Isles, for example the percentage of overseas visitors, or people on short breaks or day trips.  Overall, other than for the study area in Spain the tourism trends reported for each region were decline, stagnation, or underperformance in relation to the wider area, whereas in Lewis the tourism sector is experiencing significant and sustained growth

What would be the cost ?

Whether or not community benefit payments would balance potential losses on paper is in many respects a side issue.  Larger tourism business create employment and attract people into areas where in turn smaller enterprises such as tea rooms also benefit, as do local shops and post offices. In remote communities where seasonal income from tourism may make an essential contribution to the household purse, even a small drop in income resulting from reduced visitor numbers may significantly effect whether a business is sustainable and a family can stay.  In turn the loss of one or two families in a school catchment area can make a major diference to the viability of a local nursery or school.  It is currently not clear how windfarm community benefit could be employed to compensate for any damage to existing island businesses, nor has there been any indication that this issue has been considered.

2004 Archive

Tourism Concern

HEBRIDEAN TOURISM relies on unspoilt scenery – all its advertising shows the islands as a wilderness environment and an attractive destination.

Tourism is vital to the Western Isles but relies on the unspoilt enviroment. If the Hebrides do become "the worlds largest windfarm", Islanders could lose hundreds of jobs and £millons a year.
Wind-power promises a few jobs with many either short-term or going to the mainland. Justin Busbridge urges that Islanders look carefully at what is being offered - it might not be as generous as they are being led to believe.

Justin Busbridge is a freelance business consultant who also runs a small but successful business in adventure and activity tourism. He lives with his wife on her Macdonald family croft on the west side of the Isle of Lewis from where he is researching towards a PhD in remote and rural health care with the University of the Highlands & Islands.

Activities such as hill and clifftop walking, bird watching, cycling, fishing, golf or just enjoying the flora and fauna or miles of empty beach attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

If we build on the growth in adventure-sport tourism – kayaking, diving, fast boats, surfing and kiting, the Western Isles could rival New Zealand as a tourist destination. And if we develop top-quality ‘sporting’ tourism such as salmon fishing and shooting in a fabulous wilderness setting, they can hold their own against the exotic destinations of Africa and Asia.

With hundreds of environmental designations, their environment is recognised as having global significance and real economic worth. Far from being a burden, these designations are unique selling points for the Hebrides.

It is often said ‘you can’t eat a view’ – but tourism operators and thousands of islanders earn their living from just these views. If they are destroyed, so is their livelihood.

Tourism is not a ‘Cinderella’ industry: it creates real jobs. In 2003, nearly 180,000 visitors, stayed an average of six nights in the Hebrides and spent between £40 and £60 million.1

Although concentrated from March to October, visitors sustain services all year round, especially the transport links. Numbers are increasing year on year. It is no longer possible to dismiss tourism as a few visiting businessmen or people ‘visiting friends or relatives’.
The Western Isles have a population of 26,500.2 Highlands and Islands Enterprise reports 11,500 jobs, including 840 in agriculture and fishing, 1,040 in manufacturing and about 3,600 in local council and health services.3

But these figures do not reflect the importance of tourism. Besides full-time tour operators, it provides work across the board: a bit to the taxi drivers, something for the shops, a boost for the restaurants and traffic for the ferry. Since much of it is seasonal or part-time, statistics usually express it as the equivalent number of full time jobs (FTEs).4 Going by official figures (see box overleaf), tourism represents 2,300 jobs or 20 per cent of Western Isles employment. But if spending is as high as £60 million, it represents 3,400 FTEs or 30 per cent of our employment – the same as local government and health combined. It is not a sector lightly to be dismissed.

Will turbines damage tourism?

A VISITSCOTLAND survey found that 50 per cent of tourists felt that wind turbines would spoil the look of Scotland, one of the main reasons they visited.5 While twenty-five per cent said they would be ‘less likely’ to return to an area with turbines, fifteen per cent said they ‘definitely’ would not return.6

Another visitor survey, conducted by tourism operators in north west Lewis, has indicated that over 90 per cent are not in favour of the massive wind-power developments planned for Lewis and that a massive 50 per cent agreed with the statement that ‘any windfarm in this area will discourage tourists from visiting Lewis’.7

Alarmingly, this is double the 25 per cent drop-off suggested by the VISITSCOTLAND survey and illustrates the reliance of the Hebrides upon its unspoiled natural environment.

Assuming that tourism is 'only' worth £40 million annually and taking a 25 per cent drop-off, industrialisation of the Hebridean landscape could damage the economy by £10 million and cost nearly 600 jobs – or five per cent of total employment.

If the figure is in fact nearer £60 million and we are contemplating a 50 per cent drop-off in visitors, then the loss could be anywhere between £15 and £30 million and losses of anywhere from 850 to 1200 jobs.
(Note that this is FTEs – considerably more employees would be affected.)

These jobs are primarily in small, local businesses – boat operators, fishing guides, B&Bs, self-catering cottages, taxi-drivers, bus companies, cafes, restaurants and hotels. Much of the tourist pound goes direct to local people.

Some Area Tourist Boards take the view that, overall, Scottish tourism might not suffer to the extent predicted by the VisitScotland survey as tourists would be ‘displaced’ to areas not affected.

This at least acknowledges that tourism will suffer at a local level but the argument does not apply to Lewis as there will be so few places that will not be affected visually by the turbines.

The Hebrides are not like Loch Lomond or the Trossachs. If a tourist doesn't like a windfarm in Callander they can be 'displaced' up the road to Pitlochry.

But it takes a lot for a tourist to travel to the Hebrides. If the islands become known as ‘the world's largest windfarm’, displacement is not an option. Visitors just won't cross the Minch.

Claims that turbines become tourist attractions are ridiculous. Who will drive past thousands of them through the centre of Scotland just to visit yet more in Lewis? Two wind-power ‘theme parks’ (Delabole, Cornwall and Swaffham, Norfolk) are in difficulties due to lack of visitors.

The impact on tourism in the North West Highlands must also be considered. The Lewis sites would require transmission lines from Ullapool to Beauly which also relies upon an unspoiled environment. The Hebrides are frequently one leg of a longer Highland tour. If mainland tourism is damaged, the islands too will suffer. The drop-off in numbers could well be more than the 25 per cent suggested by VisitScotland.

As a minimum, no decision on the proposals should even be mooted until the possible effects on one of the Hebrides’ largest earners are competently researched.

Offical figures for Western Isles income from tourism could well be seriously under-estimated.
They are based on a 1999 survey which asked visitors how much they had spent on their holiday and estimated the total spend at £32.9M. (9) As numbers and spending rise, the figure has been extrapolated and is currently just under £40. It constantly finds its way into offical documents and local goverment reports. It is time for a re-evaluation.
First, it suggests that visitors to the Isles spend on £36 a day which, with B&B typically £25 in the summer, leaves only £11 for 2 meals and an excursion. Clearly too low. VisitScotland put typical tourist spend at a more realistic £56 a day.(10) This figure gives a total Western Isles spend of £60 millon. Second, the £40 millon figure does not allow for the "multiplier effect" whereby the earning of those working in tourism support other jobs.(11) A realistic multiplier of 25 per cent suggests that tourism contributes at least £50 millon to the economy as a whole.(12)
Another way of calculating tourism value is to use salary per FTE, with jobs valued at £12,500 losing 570 jobs would take £7.1 millon out of the economy while 850 job losses would cost over £10 millon.
All this strongly suggests that the offical figure is way too low.

Is it worth the risk?

Apart from limited short-term gains, the wind-power companies will not replace the income lost to tourism.
Lewis Wind claims it will provide150 construction and 25 maintenance jobs.8 The Eisgen and Pairc proposals would involve comparable numbers though their data suggest that Lewis Wind’s figures are too high.

The islands already rely on imported labour. Work on Stornoway’s new arts centre and swimming pool overwhelmed the local labour supply and much of the work went to mainland firms. Fish-processing plants on the island are already employing east-Europeans.

There is little reason to suppose that the situation would be different for wind-power construction work, some of which in any case is seasonal.

Turbines need specialist cranes and transporters and much of this work would be imported. Local firms could bid for ground-preparation, quarrying and haulage work but the big money would go elsewhere.

Many of those who currently earn an adequate income wholly or in part from tourism would either wish, nor be able, to earn a living in low-grade construction on skill, physique or age grounds alone.

Is short-term work of this calibre likely to lure people back to the island?

The developers are all promising jobs in a revived Arnish fabrication yard. But if the three schemes were to come off at much the same time (and they all are scrambling for planning permission), Arnish just could not meet the demand.

Under European law, developers have to seek tenders Europe-wide. The Arnish yard is still defunct and lacks experience in turbine construction . It would be competing with overseas companies with expertise and lower costs. There can be no guarantee of fabrication work.

Once constructed, the turbines will be here for keeps but the jobs won’t. It is common practice to control turbines remotely and bring in maintenance technicians from outside. A recent cause célèbre was the Causeymire site in Caithness. Bonus staff boasted that every last nut and bolt was Danish-made, that the site was erected by Danish engineers and that it is even controlled from Denmark.

As regards, figures vary payments widely, but income from the wind projects has been put at between £3m and £6m per annum, significantly less than the potential loss of £10m. The major profits from these schemes are going to be taken by multinational or mainland companies.

Much of the rental payments will leave the island. Apart from the Stornoway Trust and the Galson Estate, many of the landowners are individuals or syndicates based on the mainland. Even the option of retaining the benefits through community buyouts seems to have disappeared as existing landowners seek to hold onto royalties through new Edinburgh-registered companies. Of the millions promised by the wind-power companies, how much of it will actually remain here?

The graph suggests the scale of the impact that falling tourist numbers might have on Lewis’s annual income, assuming Western Isles spends of £40- and £60-million a year (see text), weighted for Lewis only. It excludes rent to landowners as these are often not local and business rate payable to the local council, CNES. It assumes community ‘benefit’ of £1,000/MW, an Installed Capacity of 1.43GW, a population of 18,500 and an average household of 2.4 persons. It includes income at £20k for maintenance crews of the size suggested by developers (though we doubt some of their figures). The photograph is of turbine delivery to the Cefn Croes site in Wales – thanks for permission to use it.   


1 Macpherson Research, TIC Visitor Survey, 2003.

2 General Register Office for Scotland, Scottish Census Results on Line, Office for National Statistics, National Statistics On Line (accessed 3 September 2004).

3 Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Western Isles Area Profile, 2003; Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Factfile.

4 Roberts D et al, 1997 Western Isles Regional Accounts, Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, 1999.

5 NFO System Three for VisitScotland, Investigation into the Potential Impact of Windfarms on Tourism in Scotland, 2002.

6 Views of Scotland, Wind Turbines and Rural Tourism, an analysis of
data from VisitScotland, July 2003.

7 Conducted August/September 2004 by NW Lewis tourism concerns.

8 AMEC presentation to WIAREP/Stornoway Trust, 2003.

9 Macpherson Research, Visitor Survey, 1999; Macpherson Research, Western Isles Tourism Report, 2002.

10 The ScotExchange website (i.e. VistScotland, HIE, Scottish Enterprise), Know Your Market (accessed 3 Sptember 2004).

11 Steve Westbrook (economist), pers com, 4 September 2004.

12 Newark & Sherwood, Tourism Economic Impact Assessment 1998, Heart of England Tourist Board, 2001.

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