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Nature / Tourism chief responds to concern over impact of Shetland Way walking route

South Mainland from Mossy Hill. Photo: VisitScotland

CONCERN has been raised about the effect a proposed walking route through the spine of Shetland might have on nature and also the isles’ already busy transport links.

But speaking in response at a meeting of the Association of Shetland Community Councils on Tuesday evening, VisitScotland’s Steve Mathieson played down concerns the ‘Shetland Way’ would result in “industrial” levels of tourism.

He also reiterated that the project has not yet gone beyond the feasibility study stage, and that any final route would avoid any sensitive areas for wildlife.

The matter was raised at the meeting by Ewen MacPherson on behalf of Gulberwick, Quarff and Cunningsburgh Community Council.

He expressed worry that having a walking route from the top to the bottom of Shetland might disturb wildlife and livestock.

“The proposed form of industrial scale tourism would be devastating to our natural environment and wildlife,” MacPherson added.

There was concern about the numbers of visitors it could bring to Shetland given there is already stretched capacity on the NorthLink ferries in peak times.

He referenced the tourism impact on locals on Skye, and spoke about issues with the West Highland Way and also litter and traffic congestion problems with the North Coast 500.

MacPherson also stressed the need for community consultation on the project.

VisitScotland’s development manager Steve Mathieson. Photo: VisitScotland

The feasibility study on the Shetland Way idea, which is supported by tourism organisation VisitScotland as well as agencies like NatureScot and HIE, found that over a 10-year period the route could be used by 600,000 visitors and create 52 additional tourism-related jobs.

The projected overall cost of delivery (excluding labour) ranges from £2.9 million to £8.2 million depending on the scale.

But Mathieson said the 600,000 figure for visitors would include people who would be coming to Shetland anyway.

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“This isn’t 600,000 new visitors that are suddenly going to appear in Shetland,” he said.

“I think the figure of new visitors over that time period is 12,000.”

Mathieson said most visitors to Shetland do walks during their stay, “and this is kind of an extra incentive to them”.

He said the idea behind the project is to improve Shetland’s tourism product and grow the industry.

Mathieson added: “I don’t think we can stop marketing Shetland as a tourism destination because we have transport issues.

“I think we have to look at it the other way round and solving our transport issues in the first place.”

He said the idea, which hopes to spread tourism across Shetland and also throughout the year, has already been out to consultation.

Mathieson said people already have the right to roam, and by having a designated route means there can be less disturbance to wildlife and peatland.

He said NatureScot can advise on areas to avoid for nesting birds, for example.

Regarding ferry capacity Mathieson also said he believed a Shetland Way could encourage some people to travel without a car.

The hope is that “people can see the best of Shetland but they can travel between communities” and visit a variety of “economic hubs” – places in Shetland with shops and accommodation for example.

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