The Responsible Traveller: Eco breaks in the UK
The Knoydart Peninsula, west coast of Scotland, photo: Richard Hammond
Choosing not to go abroad for your holidays can have some obivous environmental benefits, not least the reduced carbon emissions emissions of a flight-free trip. But that's not to say that the rise in popularity of the 'staycation' is entirely positive, writes Catherine Mack...
Driving north to Cumbria on the M6 motorway there is one particular vantage point I look forward to. On the outskirts of the Lake District, you turn a bend and suddenly, on all sides, are the heather-clad mountains, so close to the inside lane you can almost feel the spray off the waterfalls. For those of us escaping suburbia in search of moors and mountains, this first sense of space and solace is immeasurable.
However, the enduring popularity of the great outdoors (coupled with the nation’s recent love affair with the ‘staycation’), has led to concerns that the congestion in some of the UK’s premier wilderness areas is having a serious impact not only on the environment but also on the fabric of life for the people that live there. Of the 70 million people who visit the UK’s fifteen National Parks each year, 90 per cent do so by car. The result is that in peaks holiday periods roads become overcrowded, pathways trampled, beaches polluted, land eroded and residents are, rightly, exasperated. As Professor Harold Goodwin of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism at Leeds Metropolitan University says: "In some ways tourists are like weeds: en masse and in the wrong place they crowd out locals and can make their places alien to them”.
Get on the bus
So how can you continue to enjoy the UK’s National Parks in a more responsible fashion? According to TV presenter and adventurer Ben Fogle, who is president of The Campaign for National Parks (CNP), travelling to the parks by public transport would make a big difference.
“If the majority still come by private car then this will affect tranquillity, cause congestion and deter other non-motorised road users” he says.
The CNP supports several initiatives that encourage the use of public transport, including the (North York) Moors Bus, a network of bus services for local people and visitors throughout the National Park, including many destinations not normally served by public transport. The Puffin Coastal Bus service in Pembrokeshire, which you can hail anywhere en route, carried over 70,000 visitors last year (though piecemeal compared with the area’s 4.2 million annual tourists). The Yorkshire Dales Public Transport Users Group brings together providers such as the famous Settle to Carlisle train line and Dalesbus and, in the New Forest, several accommodation providers offer discounts to those travelling by public transport. (Right: hiking in the Brecon Beacons)
Alleviating car congestion to the UK’s national parks would not only reduce the impact of overcrowding, but would also significantly the nation’s carbon emissions associated with domestic tourism. Encouragingly, the organisers of some of the biggest mass events in the UK are encouraging visitors to go green.
Just as the Eden Project in Cornwall has for years offered a discount to visitors arriving by public transport, the organisers of several UK festivals are looking at providing incentives for travellers who car-share or arrive by other planet-friendly means. Glastonbury is considering offering car parking discounts and ‘priority parking’ for cars with more than three passengers, while Bestival on the Isle of Wight is looking at providing coach services from Manchester to a drop off point close to the festival entrance. Given that there are over 450 festivals in the UK each summer, visited by over 3 million people, the savings in carbon emissions from initiatives like these – if they are rolled out nationwide - could have a profound effect.
The surge in popularity of UK charity climbing events is also putting a strain on natural areas. The John Muir Trust, founded in 1983 to protect against the development of wild lands, owns several natural gems, including Ben Nevis’ summit. “I’ve seen organised parties of 800 on the Ben in one day” says Trust Chairman John Hutchison, adding, “We welcome all visitors to Ben Nevis but mass charity events put a huge burden on an extremely fragile habitat. Access to the Ben should always be free but we would expect people who generate income from organising these events to put something back.”
Consequently, the Trust has been working closely with The Institute of Fundraising (IoF), to create a much needed Code of Practice in this sector. Louise Richards, IoF’s Director of Policy and Campaigns states, “This Code needs to be followed by fundraisers…An important part of promoting best practice also involves exposing bad practice.”
Erosion and trampling is also a major issue for the CNP. Fogle, when asked to comment on a particularly impressive Park project, said, “I do admire the approach taken by the Fix the Fells project in the Lake District National Park, which maintains and repairs upland footpaths. High level paths are surprisingly fragile – with millions of visitors each year, grass is compacted by feet and worn away by wind, rain and ice. The scheme has a high profile with visitors who are encouraged to help by making donations or joining teams of volunteers working on the ground”.
Quality of life
In addition to the environmental impact, there is also concern about the effect that high volume tourism has on the quality of life for the people that live in some of the most popular UK destinations, especially where local residents see little financial upside from hordes of tourists trampling on their doorstep. One way to ensure a more equitable ‘deal’ from tourism is if visitors buy local services, such as staying overnight in a locally owned accommodation, especially one that sources food locally. Many tourism organisations now promote local food suppliers on websites and through social media.
Another way of contributing to local livelihoods is to take part in locally run activities, especially those that are low impact and managed sustainably. Chris Armstrong, of the Countryside Access and Activities Network (CAAN) in Northern Ireland, which brings together activity organisations offering an array of cycling, walking and canoeing holidays sees the provision of these kinds of activities as the future: “Tourists are no longer content with the traditional “bucket and spade” holiday. They want to engage in activities not only for fun, but as a way of taking in the scenery and embracing local culture and heritage.” CAAN also works closely with internationally renowned ethics programme, Leave No Trace, which teaches the main principles of respecting the countryside to its members.
James Paxman, Chief Executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association is, however, wary of tourists who “come into the Park to get their high adrenaline thrills. We have had regular complaints about mountain bikers - aggressive attitudes and not staying to the paths…we believe that the Park is not and should not be for theme park type enjoyment. It is all about natural beauty and quiet enjoyment”.
Five Responsible UK Holidays
Yarde Orchard Bunkhouse, North Devon
Take train to Barnstaple, North Devon, hire a bike on station platform with Tarka Trail Cycle Trail (www.tarkatrail.co.uk) and cycle off road on Devon’s stunning (and almost flat) Tarka Trail about 18 miles to eco-friendly Yarde Orchard Bunkhouse. Great organic café attached with ‘Cyclist’s Breakfast’ to greet you. See Yarde Orchard's listing on greentraveller.
Goodleaf Tree Climbing, Isle of Wight
Learn to climb a magnificent sixty feet Oak tree, with the help of skilled arborist, Paul McCathie. Glide through the branches using ropes, carabiners and careful guidance. Picnic with tea and top cakes after this exhilarating adventure. My top family outing on the island. Discount for arriving by public transport, foot or bike. www.goodleaf.co.uk
Take train to Pitlochry, and cycle through the Central Highlands, following specially created cycle routes with bike GPS. Stay at four star foodie accommodation. Great for city cyclists who want to push themselves just a bit more on holiday, but whose motivation is more white fluffy robe than yellow jersey. www.velodays.com
If you enjoyed Kate Rew’s book Wild Swim, you’ll love this company, which offers open water swimming holidays in The Lake District, Norfolk Broad, River Thames, The Isles of Scilly and Scottish Inner Hebrides. People come back year after year to take these holidays.
The Scarlet Hotel, Cornwall
The epitomy of eco-chic, this boutique hotel is built to the highest eco spec, and the most exquisite design spec. Scarlet is for slowing down, reviving in its Ayurvedic spa, or de-stressing in the surf. Or just watch the waves from a log-fired hot tub. Discounts for car-free guests. Eco-heaven. www.scarlethotel.co.uk
This article, by Catherine Mack, was first published in the March issue of Geographical (the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society), available in WHSmith and many independent newsagents. Subscribe online or order your copy by calling +44 (0)1795 414 881