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Tourism’s lead role in bolstering economy

John O'Groat Journal

Food and drink together with developments in the creative industries are seen as key to the growth of tourism in Caithness and north Sutherland.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has invested £250,000 in the past 12 months in projects focused on boosting the holiday trade in the far north.

But as Dounreay moves closer to its decommissioning end date, tourism is set to grow in importance as the area looks to increase its international appeal to help create and sustain jobs over the next decade.

John O'Groats, accessibility to the Orkney Islands and astronomy - most notably for sightings of the aurora borealis - are seen as the main strengths of tourism in Caithness.

But a HIE spokeswoman said for tourism in the county to progress, it has to work hand in hand with other industries such as food and drink as well as the creative industries.

"We are particularly interested in supporting the development of links between tourism and other key sectors such as creative industries and food and drink," she said.

"Example would include the North Highland Initiative and its North Highland Larder project, which explores the relationship between food & drink and tourism and support for Highland Stoneware, which firmly straddles the boundary between creative industry and tourism."

Projects in the far north supported over the past year by HIE include the North Highland Larder and the Northern Skies projects; Timespan in Helmsdale; pontoons at Helmsdale harbour; Dornoch tourism development; Castle of Mey business development; community initiatives in Lairg; Highland Geopark; and the John O'Groats redevelopment.

HIE is also investing £146 million into next generation broadband which will benefit tourist-based businesses as well as other sectors of the economy.

The quango was heavily criticised when Caithness was left out among the first locations to be part of the broadband rollout in 2014 and it is estimated it will not reach the far north of Scotland until at least 2015.

HIE said problems with promoting tourism in the far north in the past were due to the lack of a single body spearheading the sector.

But the HIE spokeswoman said trade bodies such as Caithness Chamber of Commerce and North Highland Initiative encourage the agency to put a greater emphasis on promoting tourism in the area.

"We are delighted that Caithness Chamber of Commerce continues to develop marketing collateral for the area and attend trade shows in the UK to promote the offering in the area," she said.

"We understand that they are continuing to do this in support of their members and the area in general.

"The North Highland Initiative covers an area that includes Ross-shire as well as Caithness and Sutherland. They represent a large number of the tourism companies, as well as those companies with an interest in tourism such as food and drink companies, and continue to bring forward projects to support the development of the sector in the area.

"Both organisations play a significant role in the development of the tourism sector in Caithness and north Sutherland.

"A new group, Venture North, has formed that covers specifically Caithness and Sutherland. This industry-led body is seeking to deliver impact for the businesses it represents."

The project is also looking at product and service development to be more closely aligned with emerging and existing markets by improving accommodation, creation of new attractions, visitor infrastructure improvements and programme of events.

Companies such as Natural Retreats have been praised by HIE by adding real value in their promotion and product development for John O'Groats in recent years.

It is also delighted with progress on redeveloping Wick harbour where investment in a new marina has led to the port becoming a popular destination for yachts and recreational craft.

The Ambitious for Tourism project is working on a marketing plan to present the consumer with a unified image of Caithness and north Sutherland as an attractive tourist destination. A joint initiative has also been developed by HIE, Scottish Enterprise and VisitScotland, called Tourism Intelligence Scotland (TIS).

It aims to provide a wide range of excellent material to update companies on market intelligence in areas such as walking, wildlife, golf and ancestral tourism.