A common thread emerged in conversations last summer with North Highland clients and friends with properties along the coastline, particularly those with hotels and holiday accommodation: 2016 had been their busiest summer yet.
The reason for this sudden boost in tourism revenue? No, not the weather - the North Coast 500, which has been one of the UK's most successful tourism initiatives in recent years. Launched in April 2015 as Scotland's answer to America's Route 66, the 500-mile route around the North Highland coastline is aimed at promoting tourism and bringing economic benefit to the region. The concept appears to have captured the imaginations of visitors from far and wide who are flocking to the area to drive or cycle round the scenic coastal route.
Whether racing around in record time, or taking a leisurely trip over a week or more, the increased numbers of visitors are providing welcome additional custom for the shops, eateries, hostelries and activity providers along the route.
Taking in the best of Scottish scenery including sandy beaches, breathtaking cliffs, majestic castles and lofty mountains, it's not hard to see why this route has become a bucket list trip.
The statistics generated since the launch are impressive. NC500 attained an audience reach of more than 620 million people through a variety of media platforms within six months of its launch. The tourist season has been extended beyond the traditional summer months, and the circular route has helped draw visitors to the previously less frequented parts of the Highlands, most notably on the east coast.
So how does the organisation ensure they keep coming back? Tom Campbell, chief executive of NC500, believes there is an unprecedented opportunity for business growth and future sustainability of the tourism sector in the North Highlands and there is no reason why visitors would not return year after year.
One of the main challenges along the route has been accommodation - in particular offering sufficient variety to cater for a diverse clientele and having enough availability and flexibility to offer short stays, especially during peak season.
Now could be the ideal time for rural businesses to invest in innovative accommodation options such as sleeping pods, luxury camp sites, bunk houses or docking stations for camping vans.
NC500 is also keen to encourage visitors to return to their favourite or newly discovered areas for a longer stay. This is where self-catering holiday lets are seeing the benefits, where visitors rent a property as a base for a more in-depth exploration of the local area. Cottages & Castles - a Gabraith Group specialist holiday lettings company - has noted a significant increase in bookings across its North Highland portfolio over the last 12 months.
Accommodation is not the only option to attract tourists to your property or business. Visitors are keen to enjoy activities and attractions while they are here. Guided walks or wildlife tours, Land Rover or quad bike safaris, bicycle hire or fishing lessons are just some of the options that can be very popular. There could also be the opportunity to offer services, such as bicycle repairs, charging points for cars or electronic devices or picnic delivery.
NC500 offers businesses an excellent platform to advertise their products and reap the benefits of collaborative marketing. Business Club members are listed on the website, by both service and map.
In addition businesses can take advantage of social media promotion packages, various other PR and marketing activities and the ability to use the NC500 logo on their own marketing material. With 38,000 followers on social media it can expose a rural business to a wide audience in a short space of time.
So how do you grab a slice of the action? As with any diversification it's important to consider the assets you have available. Are there redundant buildings that could be converted to business use? What would they be most useful for? What are the natural assets on your property that visitors would want to see? What skills do you have that could help enhance the visitor experience? With some creative thinking, it could certainly be an excellent time to invest in the tourism sector in the North Highlands.
THE NORTH COAST 500 IN NUMBERS
620,000,000 Audience reach six months after launch
38,000 Followers on social media
1,656 Businesses on the app
50,000 Copies of the map printed
516 Miles along the route