With spring on its way, more people may be turning to what Scotland has to offer in terms of nature and outdoor holidays.
This year has been designated the “Year of Natural Scotland”.
In 2010, Scottish Natural Heritage said the value to the Scottish economy of nature-based tourism was £1.4bn a year. So how could Scotland make the most of this potential?
“I’m from Holland,” says a man standing at the start of the West Highland Way in Milngavie. He is kitted out with all the gear – walking boots, poles and waterproofs.
“I’ve never been to Scotland before,” he continues. “I’m sure it’s very pretty and beautiful countryside with hills, nature, deer, flowers, everything in it.”
There is a steady stream of people arriving in the early morning sunshine.
There are small groups and individuals, some are visiting the nearby bakery for supplies, many of them are having their photo taken before they set out on the trip – almost 100 miles to Fort William through some really spectacular countryside.
“We’re from London,” a woman tells me, as she prepares to set off. “We’ve spent time in this part of Scotland but we’ve never done a walk from A to B, to actually get somewhere and it seemed like a lovely thing to do.”
You can of course simply walk independently, but many now choose to have their accommodation booked and their bags transported.
“When you’re walking or cycling, you’re not insulated within a car,” says Neil Lapping, who describes himself as chief adventure officer of MACs Adventure, a company which specialises in self-guided walking and cycling holidays in the UK and Europe.
They organise the transport of bags, accommodation and provide information on routes. The company was set up in Glasgow in 2003 from Mr Lapping’s spare bedroom, but now 16 people work in its offices.
Initially the company only offered Scottish holidays, but they began expanding their list of destinations in order to grow the business.
“There are certain places where we simply cannot book any more people,” he explains.
“We could sell hundreds more places on the West Highland Way but we just can’t get the accommodation, so there’s a real shortage of accommodation in a lot of the rural areas that we visit in Scotland.
“We’ve found that in the last few years since we’ve become one of the biggest operators in Scotland we are just finding it difficult to grow at the same rate that we used to.
“So now we’re seeing about 10% growth in our Scottish tours, whereas we’re seeing over 100% growth in our European tours.”
The wider, nature-based tourism sector covers a broad range such as wildlife watching, walking, adventure sports and other outdoor activities.
“There’s definitely growing interest within Scotland for outdoor activities,” says Caroline Warburton, manager of the Scottish wildlife and adventure tourism association, Wild Scotland.
“But also in our main market which is in the rest of the UK and the tourist board is doing more and more marketing about Scotland’s activities to the overseas markets.”
She points to challenges for mainly rural businesses such as fuel, equipment and distance.
Ms Warburton reckons there are probably 500-600 operators in Scotland involved in outdoor activities to a greater or lesser extent but adds that “we need them all to get involved so we can really shout about how important it is to tourism”.
Scotland of course has plenty to offer in terms of nature and landscape.
“It’s about sharing our love and passion for the land,” says Moray-based marine biologist Deborah Benham. She runs a range of conservation, wildlife-watching and family nature-based holidays, as well as working on other projects.
For her, some of the challenge has been to do with the size of her business.
“I’m a micro-operator and I didn’t really have any capital to invest in the business, so I’ve been growing it very slowly and organically while doing other things as well.
“I think that’s not uncommon for other very small operators.
“There are a few big operators but I would say that’s because they’ve built themselves up over the years and been successful but most people start off just as a one-man band, a couple or a family enterprise and then try and built it up. People are quite diverse and they do that in order to survive.”
On a cold, bright day on the lower slopes of Dumyat, overlooking Stirling, the number of cars parked in little lay-bys is testament to how popular this area is.
At the western edge of the Ochils, this is arguably one of the best viewpoints in central Scotland. On the way up, one passes lambs in the fields and overhead there is the cry of geese.
“You’ve got the whole swathe of the Trossachs and Loch Lomond National Park and all the mountains there,” says Dorothy Breckenridge of C-N-Do Scotland in Stirling, “and the whole carse of Stirling with the monument, and if you go round a little bit more you’d be able to see right down to Edinburgh and the Pentlands and Arthur’s Seat.”
C-N-Do Scotland runs a range of walking holidays in locations across Scotland. Nature-based and outdoor tourism may be mainstream now but when they set up in 1984 they were viewed as very unusual.
“People just thought we were mad,” says Ms Breckenridge. “Why did people want to come to Scotland to go walking? But I think over the years it’s been demonstrated that actually walking and activities are a vital part of Scottish tourism.”
She adds: “It’s the quietness, it’s the solitude.
“Scotland’s quite a small country but there’s lots of open space and that’s what makes it special.”