The Tourist Trap

Traffic management can be an issue for the Orcadian tourist attractions on summer days, as here in the car park at Skara Brae.

I’m troubled by tourists. I like them, and I like to be a tourist myself, but, somehow, tourism has become a problem.

There are lots of reasons to appreciate tourism. It has always had a close relationship to archaeology and that continues today. Archaeology has a magnetic draw for tourists: sites are often in picturesque locations; ruins can be romantic; some hold the allure of ancestral homelands; others provide interest for the intellectual; many are exotic. There is something comforting about reminding ourselves just how deep rooted our past can be.

Orkney typifies the ideal location for the archaeological tourist. We have a good variety of sites for people to visit, from stone age remains that predate the pyramids, to wartime gun emplacements, and everything between. Those who wish to can experience these sites in a range of ways. There are organised tours, accessible managed sites, and remote sites that are off the beaten track and can take a bit of finding. You can get the full ‘explorer’ vibe, or you can opt for a more comfortable day out.

Tourists have been coming to Orkney to see the ancient sites for the last few centuries. I’m not sure what the earlier inhabitants of these islands thought of those who were able to make the trip north. I’d guess they were proud of the remains, though some might well have been puzzled that folk would be interested enough to go to the trouble of making the journey. Travel has not always been easy, though that has never stopped people from undertaking it. In general, from the records that survive, it does not seem as if visitors posed a problem.

Today, however, travel is easier and (hopefully) quicker. I can’t say cheaper as anyone who has visited Orkney will know, but that does not put people off. Visitors arrive in Orkney in their thousands (over 170,000 arrived in 2017, plus another 125,000 who came in on the cruise ships). 62%% of them want to see the history and culture, 40% the archaeology (according to the 2017 visitor survey). And this has had an impact on the sites. Some of our sites have become ‘honeypots’ and the pressure is such that the wellbeing of a site can be threatened. The most popular sites need careful management.

Of course, the problem is exacerbated when visitors all arrive in one large group. For that reason people often focus on those who visit from a cruise ship as the cause of the problems of overcrowding. It is not all about the ships, however. Cruise vessels make an important contribution to visitor numbers in Orkney, but many people arrive under their own steam, while others come on visits that have been organised by the plethora of companies offering holidays to Orkney. All, unwittingly, help to wear down a site, but all deserve a quality experience.

Where a site is overcrowded it behoves us to find alternative venues to visit, for both the wellbeing of the site and the quality of the visitor trip.  Spreading the visitor footfall a little wider across the islands makes sense as it also spreads the benefits in terms of local income. This is not hard in a place like Orkney where there is a tremendous variety of attractions (though it is sad to hear rumours of Council cuts to Museum Services that may remove one of our fantastic country-life museums from the mix. I regularly visit with groups and it is a very popular trip).

The problems lie not only in finding places for people to visit, however. They also cover infrastructure. Food venues; car parks; toilets; transport; information: all need to be able to cope with the numbers. Right now there are some shortcomings. Some sites are poorly advertised, some take a bit more travel (particularly those on the smaller islands), people do not always know what to expect, and they are not always sure where an attraction fits in, chronologically, to the great scheme of things. The information can sometimes be over technical and it is rarely in languages other than English. Perhaps we just need to publicise our lesser-known sites a little more. And provide some quickly assimilated overviews: I have noticed that some countries have very successful short films to provide an overview of their past and these allow the visitor to orientate themselves and their interests.

The impacts of tourism also fall upon the locals. While many benefit from tangible income, it can be hard to get around town on a ‘cruise ship day’, while visiting sites like Skara Brae when the coach parties are up from Inverness in the summer afternoons is not to be recommended. Driving can be difficult on crowded roads, even hire cars hard to find for visiting family (also tourists in their own way of course). I’m curious that there does not seem to be a coordinated overview of tourism impacts and requirements. On one hand, we have Orkney Harbours keen to increase the number of visiting cruise vessels. On the other hand, we have vociferous complaints about visitor pressures, too many coaches on the roads, or the problems of running a ‘normal’ life.

In general, I am glad that people want to visit Orkney and learn about the past here. We have plenty to show them, and most people have gone to some effort to arrive. I’ve just been taking a small group around some of the sites. It is a lot of fun to spend a week in the company of those whose enthusiasm and excitement rubs off on one no matter how many times you have visited a place. I do hope we can take a step back to think about what we have to offer, how best to manage it, and how to maintain a top-class experience. We may need to undertake a bit of self-reflection and identify things we could do better, even invest in improvements. But it will be worth it in the long run.

Tourists do bring problems, but they are not insurmountable, and they also bring benefits. Not only are we opening the gates to interest and excitement, but only if people care about our monuments will they take steps to look after them.