Responsible tourism in the UK

The UK is one of Europe’s most popular tourism destinations – around 40 million people visit every year. The trouble is, most of them end up going to the same places: London, Edinburgh, the beaches of Cornwall and the fells of the Lake District.

Such overtourism is unsustainable. It puts pressure on communities and landscapes that are too often incapable of managing so many visitors. And it means that other parts of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which could benefit significantly from tourism income, are neglected. Conversely, for a significant proportion of the UK population, many of our most beautiful outdoor locations and pursuits are, or feel, unobtainable.

Another complication to UK tourism is Brexit. When the country narrowly voted to leave the European Union it unleashed ramifications across the entire economy, many of which are still becoming clear. For the inbound tourism industry, one of the most immediate effects is that hiring seasonal staff has become a lot more difficult. There is also a risk that some potential travellers will see the UK turning its back on the world to an extent, becoming less welcoming.

In 2021, with the UK gradually emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic through its vaccination programme, a key government message is that now is the time to “build back better” across the country and economy. A reset for tourism would be welcome. It would require an open-eyed, open-minded assessment of what’s wrong with UK tourism at the moment, and where improvements can be made. Here’s our take on some of the more pressing issues and how we think travelling responsibly can help.

People

Escaping the crowds

When Responsible Travel’s founder and CEO Justin Francis spoke to Scotland’s Sunday Herald in 2018, public awareness about overtourism around the world was growing rapidly. The crowds of Dubrovnik and Barcelona, the cruise ships of Venice and the queues on Mount Everest are all well-publicised, but overtourism also hits close to home.

Justin said: “VisitScotland should cease marketing any destination that’s exhibiting signs of overtourism with immediate effect. On VisitScotland’s Skye page there is no information about how busy it is in peak season, how to avoid the crowds, or any tips about how to minimise impacts on local residents. This is not how a responsible tourist board should be communicating to visitors.”
One of the most-affected areas is the Isle of Skye, in the Inner Hebrides off Scotland’s west coast. Here, massive cruise ships disgorging hundreds of sightseers at a time are overwhelming often fragile island communities.

Another example is Cornwall, where years of over-promotion have seen popular holiday spots and beaches packed with tourists in the peak summer season. And the number of second homes, empty for much of the year or rented to tourists, has led to many local people being completely priced out of the housing market.

In climbing season, mountain rescuers are kept busy on Ben Nevis in Scotland and Mount Snowdon in Wales by stranded walkers who follow the crowds up, but get caught out by a change in weather they were unprepared for.

And while honey-pot sites are overwhelmed and visitor satisfaction impacted by the crowds, there are so many lovely areas of the UK that miss out almost entirely from tourism. Lots of coastal towns which have fallen out of favour with visitors are dilapidated and run-down, with high unemployment. More investment in these areas and a more progressive approach to tourism promotion could go some way to rebalancing the situation.

What you can do
Don’t follow the crowds. Give the cities and most popular destinations a swerve, and find space elsewhere. There are plenty of beautiful spots around the UK where you can find a real sense of remoteness. And if London’s West End, Edinburgh Castle or seafood in St. Ives are on your bucket list, then try to come out of season, and spend your money at locally owned hotels and restaurants where it can really make a difference. Read our travel guides for information on peak seasons and the best time to travel for the best experience.

Wildlife & environment

Inclusivity in the countryside

We’d like to see greater attention paid to inclusivity – there is a real issue with protected landscapes such as national parks being out of reach to people from poorer communities, despite the obvious physical and mental benefits of being in these natural spaces. The countryside carries a cultural stigma too, that walking and other outdoor pursuits are the sort of thing middle class white people do and that other groups are perhaps not welcome. People from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, despite making up around 14% of the UK population, account for only 1% of national park visits. It’s fantastic to see some walking groups springing up in recent years to improve diversity. Subsidised public transport from some areas, along with tourism marketers increasing visibility of people from a variety of backgrounds enjoying the countryside, would go some way to making a difference.

Biodiversity crisis

The UK’s rich literary tradition – from Chaucer and Wordsworth to Alfred Wainwright, Roger Deakin and Nan Shepherd – has celebrated the country’s wild spaces for centuries. Today, their words compliment the work of local guides connecting you to the places you visit, and their people, history and culture. But the 2016 UK State of Nature report revealed that the UK is one of the most “nature-depleted” countries in the world. That’s to say, over half of the 8,000 species studied are in decline. Even more shocking is that the national parks and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), which receive additional investment and protections, are not bucking the national trend. A 2021 report found that the government’s ‘toothless’ policies were no answer.

The UK’s national parks currently need to balance their remit to increase biodiversity with recreation, and often the emphasis is on recreation at the expense of habitats and wildlife. There needs to be a return to conservation as the guiding principles behind the national parks system.
Parks need stronger, independent governance, ideally with conservationists involved who can sign off or reject management plans. And while tourism is part of the problem when it comes to biodiversity loss in the UK’s national parks, it can also be part of the solution. One initiative might be to introduce a small overnight stay tax, with the funds ring-fenced for conservation projects.

There are, however, distinct signs of improvement which, if ambition is met by firm action, could indicate that the UK government is finally taking the biodiversity crisis seriously. Plans have been announced to treble tree planting, and to set new, legally binding targets to halt the decline of species and habitats. The UK is to trial a handful of “highly protected marine areas” – a small step, given that most marine areas that are allegedly protected are routinely dredged and bottom-trawled, but a step in the right direction.

Recent years have seen a boom in cetacean sightings around the UK. It’s common to find them off Scotland’s west coast, but dolphins are now frequently seen off Yorkshire and Devon. In 2020, seals were spotted sunbathing on Brighton beach, while paddle boarders and boats have had friendly encounters with dolphins. Whale and dolphin watching tours are taking off, but right now there is no official code of conduct for them to operate responsibly as there is in places such as New Zealand.

Grouse shooting

Around 15 percent of Scotland’s land area is managed for grouse shooting, often intensively, including large areas of bog and heath. Driven grouse shooting, where beaters flush the birds from the ground for the hunters to shoot them, is an unsustainable practise requiring the burning of heather and the killing of predators such as raptors. Campaigning to ban the practise, led by the RSPB, continues and is gaining ground as climate change and biodiversity loss creep up the news agenda.

Rewilding

In June 2021, the charity Rewilding Britain called on the government to rewild 10 percent of UK national parks to help curb the climate and biodiversity crises. They argue that the parks are not currently fit for purpose, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to protect 30 percent of Britain’s nature is not realistic without firm action.

However, rewilding projects are growing in number and popularity across the UK. In Scotland, major landowners have partnered to create the Cairngorms Connect project to enhance species, habitats and natural ecological processes. Beavers have returned to the rivers of Devon, their dam-building prowess thought to help prevent flooding. Sea eagles are frequently seen on the Isle of Wight and visitors on wildlife safaris can admire turtle doves and purple emperor butterflies on the Knepp Estate in West Sussex.

What you can do
It’s sad but true that when it comes to conservation, money talks. Governments, landowners and local residents are much more likely to take an interest in protecting wildlife and habitats if there is a clear financial benefit. Responsible tourism has a part to play here.

If you want to see wildlife in a way that minimises your impact on the animals, there are some great responsible holidays around the UK. Cruises in the Inner and Outer Hebrides of Scotland, marine safaris off the Isle of Man, small-scale safaris on the Knepp estate in West Sussex – and you can encounter lots of marine life kayaking off the Welsh coast or in Devon. Our travel partners will often make a financial contribution to a conservation organisation whenever someone books one of their holidays, or help out with research projects.

When it comes to visiting national parks in the UK, the best advice is simply not to take them for granted. Understand that the fells of the Lake District are not naturally bare, but kept that way by unsustainable levels of sheep farming. That wandering off marked paths risks damage to fragile habitats. And visit outside the peak summer months if you can, avoiding the busiest locations to reduce the pressure many communities experience and spread income around other areas.

Economy & politics

Fresh takes on the UK

Tourism was one of the industries worst affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, with many countries effectively closing their borders for more than a year. It has forced many companies to re-evaluate the way they do business, and hopefully it will lead to the tourism industry taking a more sustainable approach going forwards.

In the UK during 2020 and 2021, with the country ‘locked down’ for much of the time, there was a lot of talk from the government about ‘building back better’. And there is no shortage of ways in which UK tourism can be considerably improved. Less promotion of areas that suffer from overtourism, and better management of national parks are two of the most obvious.

And it’s impossible to ignore the other most momentous event to affect the UK in recent years: Brexit. The true scale of the ramifications of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union are still becoming apparent – at times, it appears that even the government that signed the Withdrawal Agreement has underestimated some of the most severe impacts. The inbound tourism industry is already feeling the effects, finding it harder to recruit seasonal staff. There is also a growing sense that the UK is becoming a less welcoming place to visit. Cultural exchanges could suffer, as Brexit throws up barriers for European schools to bring their pupils on tour.

Promoting new, more sustainable ways to explore the UK can help to spur tourism’s recovery. Responsible tourism can create employment in areas which have previously seen little benefit from the millions of people who visit the UK every year, and help those visitors see beyond the more obvious, over-Instagrammed locations.

What you can do
There are many ways to explore the UK that don’t involve an open-topped sightseeing bus, a crowded London Underground train, or joining a long queue. You can kayak off the coast in Wales or Devon to find sea caves and sandy beaches, hike empty trails up mountains in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and follow historic long-distance walks across England.

Local guides can give you unique perspectives on the places you’re visiting – the history, culture and landscapes. Whether you’re walking in Northern Ireland’s Mourne Mountains, staying the night in a snowhole you dug yourself in the Cairngorms, or cycling the length of Hadrian’s Wall, they add enjoyment and understanding throughout that you simply can’t get from a guidebook.

Lastly – come out of season. The weather in the UK is notoriously fickle, which is why it’s such a constant topic of conversation here. But that changeability is all part of the fun. Visit in early spring, late autumn and even winter in some areas, and yes you will find it colder and damper. But even the most popular locations are far less busy at these times, and your stay will bring welcome out-of-season income to local hotels, restaurants, guides and tour operators.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mikadun] [Scotland cruise ships: The Carlisle Kid] [Biodiversity: Dave Lowe] [Rewilding: PicGaz]