Beautiful scenery, pristine coastlines, breathtaking views – the stunning landscape is inarguably one of Scotland’s greatest assets. But rising visitor numbers, fast-paced bucket list travel, and a growing number of people who’ve “discovered” the outdoors are piling on the pressure. More pollution, overtourism, and dirty camping are just some of the issues Scotland is dealing with. Let’s talk about how to travel better and make a positive impact through responsible tourism in Scotland.

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As a travel blogger who loves Scotland – I moved here for what I thought would be a year, 8 years later I’m still here – I am thrilled to see how popular Scotland is around the world.

The country has been celebrated as a top destination in travel magazines from Rough Guides to Lonely Planet. It has been featured on TV shows and films from Outlander to Harry Potter.

Everybody loves Scotland – and everybody wants to visit.

And that’s great! Tourism is so important for the Scottish economy – all this love and desire to visit creates jobs and opportunities, particularly among young people and in remote or rural communities. My entire job exists because of it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

BUT – and there is always a but – it’s not all whisky and unicorns. Tourism – when it’s not managed well – can have a devastating impact on local communities and the environment.

From a lack of affordable housing and strain on local infrastructures to erosion of paths from unmanaged footfall and environmental pollution – overtourism is a real problem in Scotland, especially in honeypots like Edinburgh or the Isle of Skye.

The good news is that each and every one of us can do something about it – by making the right choices, we can be “better travellers” and make a positive impact on the communities we visit.

This article is a guide to responsible tourism in Scotland. Read on for:

  • The difference between irresponsible travel and overtourism,
  • Tips for planning a responsible itinerary for Scotland,
  • How to have a positive impact on local communities, and
  • Making eco-conscious choices on the road.

This article isn’t meant to shame anyone who didn’t realise that their behaviour is irresponsible, or put a downer on someone who wants to visit Scotland’s beauty spots.

I hope this article…

  • gives you food for thought by highlighting issues you might have not thought about before,
  • offers inspiration for your next trip,
  • is a resource you want to share with friends and family to spread awareness.
Elgol on the Isle of Skye in Scotland
The view from Elgol on the Isle of Skye

Irresponsible travel vs. Overtourism

First of all, it’s important to distinguish irresponsible behaviour from overtourism. There are some significant differences in the way I understand and use these two concepts.

Irresponsible tourism

…is about individual behaviour that is harmful to local communities and the environment. At best, it’s caused by a lack of awareness or knowledge. At worst – it’s a sign of deliberate ignorance. This can affect any destination and is often increasingly harmful in remote communities.

Overtourism

…isnt’ so much about individual choices, but rather about visitor numbers reaching a critical mass. This creates pressure that can easily boil over. This usually affects so-called “honeypots” – popular locations that see a lot of footfall.

Even though I think it’s important to distinguish between irresponsible behaviour and overtourism, the results of both are similar and unfortunately, they often go hand-in-hand.

The captain of the Loch Ness Cruise ship at work.
A popular boat tour on Loch Ness

How to plan a responsible Scotland itinerary

First, let’s talk about planning an itinerary that encourages responsible tourism in Scotland.

Travel off the beaten path

One of the easiest ways to see Scotland in a responsible way is to choose destinations that are off the beaten path. Leave the crowds behind and visit lesser-known regions.

Admittedly, you may not get to say you’ve seen Scotland’s most iconic locations, like the Old Man of Storr or the Glenfinnan Viaduct. But in return, you will be able to enjoy Scotland’s countryside without the crowds.

Here are three tips to plan an off-beat Scotland itinerary:

  1. Think about what you want to experience in Scotland and find regions that offer what you’re looking for.
  2. Read travel blogs, follow local travel experts and take their advice and recommendations to heart.
  3. Hire me to plan a bespoke Scotland itinerary for you!

I have many travel guides for regions around Scotland and you’ll quickly realise there is a lot to see & do wherever you go.

Elie Ness Lighthouse on the Fife Coastal Path
A lighthouse on the quiet east coast of Scotland

Slow down and stay longer

I appreciate that you may have limited time to spend in Scotland. A week or two of paid vacation per year, doesn’t leave a lot of time for slow travel.

But I promise that if you slow down and spend more time in fewer locations, you will feel more deeply connected with the areas you visit. You can still do a lot and experience different things, but you can also have a more positive impact on the region you stay in.

So, slow down and spend more than one night in each overnight location. You might even hire a cottage for an entire week and explore the surrounding areas from there.

Book activities with responsible organisations

The dramatic scenery of the Scottish Highlands and the coast is on top of many Scotland bucket lists. But how can you immerse yourself in this fragile environment responsibly?

Whether you want to go hiking, kayaking, river rafting, coasteering or stand-up paddleboarding, I recommend booking these activities with responsible organisations. Companies that work with nature and local communities, and don’t just exploit them for financial gain.

Instead of booking with big international brands who “parachute in” for guided trips, book with local organisations that have a meaningful connection with their surroundings and take care of the environment.

A great resource to find such responsible is Wild Scotland. Their members are outdoor and wildlife activity providers who adhere to a code of ethics and best practices to reduce their impact.

Alternatively, look for members of the Scottish biospheres or organisations that are listed on national park websites.

You might also like: 18 Outdoor Activities to try in Scotland

An RIB boat out at sea
A boat trip on the west coast with Seafari Adventures

Environmentally-friendly travel

Thinking about your impact on nature is often the first thing people think about when it comes to travelling responsibly.

“Wild Scotland encourages visitors to come and enjoy Scotland for the beautiful landscape, incredible wildlife and diverse range of activities on offer – which all play their part at connecting people with nature and the great outdoors.  Collectively, we have a responsibility to look after our wildlife and protect and nurture the natural environment we live and work in. Let’s make sure we play our part in saving our beautiful planet so that the next generation can enjoy it as we have. Do your bit now!” – Victoria Brooks, Wild Scotland

Avoid unnecessary transport

Transport is often the biggest issue when you travel to Scotland. Depending on where you come from, or which places you want to see, flying and driving feel inevitable. But there are many things you can do to avoid or limit fossil-fuelled transportation on your trip:

  • Offset your flight’s carbon footprint. This isn’t the be-all, end-all of responsible travel, but if you have to fly in order to reach Scotland, it’s a good start.
  • Travel by public transport (here’s how) or join a small tour group like Rabbie’s to share your carbon emissions.
  • If you hire a car, book the smallest or most efficient car possible and minimise your mileage by travelling slowly.
  • Or instead, book a cycling or walking holiday. There are many fantastic long-distance trails to hike in Scotland.
Hiking the West Highland Way had been on my bucket list ever since I moved to Scotland. This photo essay is a one-stop source for inspiration and advice!
Hiking the West Highland Way

Reduce your plastic waste

In Scotland, there is really no need to buy bottled water. Buy or bring a refillable water bottle – the tap water is perfectly safe to drink.

Take it one step further and bring tote bags for shopping, a bamboo cutlery set that can be reused for takeout and solid toiletry products to avoid those pesky hotel shampoo bottles.

Learn about the Scottish environment

I believe that the more we know about the environment, the more we will want to protect it.

There are many places where you can learn about Scottish environment, wildlife and nature, such as visitor centres at our National Parks and National Nature Reserves, natural sites that are owned by the National Trust for Scotland, the UNESCO Biospheres in Galloway and Wester Ross, botanic or woodland gardens and more.

Brownie points, if you don’t just visit, but also support these organisations’ work by donating.

You might also like: Where to see Scottish Wildlife

The Glen Doll Ranger Station in the Cairngorms National Park

Respect the Scottish Outdoor Access Code

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 grants public access to land whether it’s privately owned or not.

There are many benefits from land access rights; but irresponsible access can cause issues, such as pollution, disturbance of wildlife or destruction of habitat.

Dirty (wild) camping, in particular, has caused a stir lately and there are some who argue wild camping should be regulated more. To me, that defeats the purpose of “real” wild camping though.

If we want to keep enjoying the benefits of land access rights, we need to take responsibility and care for the land we’re on. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code lays out useful principles and guidelines that help us do just that.

This includes among others:

  • Don’t litter. Carry your rubbish back home with you and dispose of it where there are plenty of bins available.
  • Don’t light fires, especially when it’s dry. Don’t harm trees to collect firewood. Don’t use single-use BBQs on grass as it leaves burn marks for years.
  • Know where and how to poo in nature. Only dispose of chemical toilet waste in appropriate facilities.
  • Don’t “wild” camp in the vicinity of houses, historic sites, churches or graveyards. Wild camping should be done away from roads and villages.
  • Don’t park overnight in places where it’s not allowed.
  • Don’t disturb wildlife, i.e. by walking too closely, touching wild animals or feeding them.
Litter on a Scottish beach
Plastic litter on a Scottish beach

Considering local communities

Responsible tourism in Scotland must go further than taking care of the environment – it must also apply to the way we as visitors treat and impact local communities.

“Scotland is a friendly country with many beautiful wild landscapes, but these are not theme parks – they are places where people live and work all year round, as well as being home to fragile plants, animals, birds and insects. We know that visitors don’t come with the intention of vandalising these places or causing disruption to the lives of locals, but even small instances of thoughtless behaviour multiplied many times over can add up to serious havoc to people and nature.” – Alan McCombes, John Muir Trust

Be a responsible hiker

Being a hiker who is considerate to the local community, means making sure that they wear appropriate clothes, carrying the necessary equipment, checking weather forecasts and making wise decisions about when to turn around.

Why?

Because failing to do these things means you might get yourself into trouble and worst case, you’ll require assistance from the local Mountain Rescue Team. Rescuing unprepared hikers off a mountain in bad weather can be a dangerous undertaking and puts strain on local resources.

PS: Of course, don’t hesitate to call for Mountain Rescue if you need it by calling 999, asking for Police and then Mountain Rescue.

Woman standing by a lake at Loch Ossian Youth Hostel
A low-level hike in foggy weather

Drive and park responsibly

Irresponsible parking is a huge issue in rural communities near honeypots. When car parks are full, some drivers park in driveways or passing places, or on roads with a double yellow line where parking is not permitted.

This behaviour can cause accidents or block road access for locals and emergency vehicles.

When a car park is full there’s nothing you can do but move on. Arrive early to secure a parking spot. Or have a plan B in mind and be prepared to drive to another location.

You might also like: My top 10 Driving Tips for Scotland

Respect people’s privacy and homes

To you, it’s a picture-perfect village with cute houses. To the locals, it’s their home.

If you want to photograph a person, ask for their permission. For pictures of children, ask their parents or guardians as they aren’t old enough to consent.

Taking pictures of a house? Consider: Would you want someone to photograph your house? Do what you can to minimise your impact – i.e. avoid geotagging the exact address, avoid including the house number or street name, and for the love of God, don’t enter people’s gardens to take pictures.

A lonely whiter cabin in front on a tall mountain and purple flowers blooming in Glencoe in Scotland.
The famous white cottage in Glencoe

Don’t do it for the gram

People do all sorts of things “for the gram” – just to get a picture for social media. From standing near dangerous cliff edges or promoting dangerous paths without pointing out the risks, to dangling off iconic landmarks (like the John O Groats sign) – all of this is irresponsible behaviour and isn’t worth the likes you’ll get for it.

Personally, I also try not to touch historic monuments that are thousands of years old (like standing stones) to avoid contributing to erosion.

There are many ways to take beautiful pictures for your social media that don’t have a negative impact on local communities, landmarks or the environment.

Sign post at John O Groats on the North Coast 500
The iconic sign at John O Groats covered in stickers

Support local businesses

Stay at locally owned accommodation

Housing is a huge issue in Scotland, especially in rural communities in the Highlands and islands where many locals are prized out by wealthier buyers who can afford to buy second homes or buy-to-let. Some villages have barely any residents left.

I know the appeal of a self-catering cottage and like I said above, staying in one place for longer can be a great way to travel responsibly. However, try to avoid self-catering homes that aren’t embedded in the local community. Try to find a place that is owned by locals, and lies in a village that has more than just holiday lets left.

Traditional B&Bs, where you stay in a separate part of the host’s house, are a fantastic alternative. Not only are you staying in locally owned accommodation, but you also have access to your host’s vast local knowledge.

If hotels are your thing, search for small, family-owned hotels.

You might also like: My favourite unique places to stay in Scotland

Creeside Escape shepherd's hut in Scotland
An off-grid shepherd’s hut owned by a local farmer

Book local tour guides

There is nothing quite like spending a few hours or a day with a local guide. They know their home region better than a travel guidebook can ever convey. Hiring a tour guide will enrich your stay and allow you to connect with a local.

Some of my favourite experiences in Scotland have been hiring local guides.

  • Our hiking guide on the Isle of Mull showed us wildlife, hidden waterfalls and a great loch for wild swimming.
  • My whisky guide in the Speyside knew all the secrets of the whisky industry.
  • And my stargazing guide in Galloway taught me an awful lot about space and mindfulness.

You might also like: Experiencing Mull & Iona with Local Guides

Shop at small local businesses

Try to spend your travel budget in local communities whenever you can.

That can mean booking a family-run B&B over an international hotel chain, having lunch in a local cafe instead of picking up supplies at a supermarket, or buying locally made crafts instead of imported souvenirs.

Of course, I appreciate that you might be travelling on a budget – but even on a small scale, this can have a really big impact.

Shopping at the Scottish Design Exchange in Edinburgh

If we want many more people to enjoy the beauty of the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands in the future, we must do what we can to promote responsible tourism in Scotland.

So, whether you drive the North Coast 500 or go island hopping in the Outer Hebrides, I hope that these responsible travel tips have inspired you to consider your impact when you travel.


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