A COUPLE of years ago, I cut the ribbon on a new toilet block. Being an MSP isn’t all glitz and glamour and fancy events!

But this was no ordinary toilet block. Instead, it overlooked a popular tourist destination in Skye, the Fairy Pools. Built beside the new car park, these facilities were the culmination of years of meetings, setbacks and new partnerships.

In 2016, when I was first elected, I was deluged by correspondence from the small community at Glenbrittle – just up the track beyond the Fairy Pools.

The community were beside themselves with frustration, worry and anger about the congestion. There were examples of emergency services being blocked. But they did not want to war against the tourism industry itself. Tourism was also the lifeblood of their local economy.

It created jobs – for guides, B&B owners and restaurateurs. It supported families – to stay in the area all year round, fill the local school and keep the local grocery store in business. The problem wasn’t tourism, it was how it was being managed.

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There had been a monumental, gigantic growth in tourism following the viral spread of images of the Fairy Pools. Visitors came from far and wide. Many had never driven on a single-track road before and now faced the impossibility of navigating hundreds of cars coming in the opposite direction. They parked on the verges, many ending up in the ditch.

Finding no toilet facilities, many resorted to doing the unthinkable in the wild – leaving local dog walkers to find the resulting muck. Most visitors had no warning that this was essentially a rural, undeveloped site. It wasn’t complete with a visitor centre, extensive parking and – yes – toilets.

The fundamental problem was that nobody was owning the problem of “overtourism”. As the issue was passed from one stakeholder to another like a hot potato, the community continued to bear the brunt of the congestion. There were many other stakeholders, but nobody saw themselves as responsible.

Highland Council didn’t own the land, and so couldn’t charge for access or reinvest in the site. The landowner happened to own the pools but wasn’t inclined to manage the site. The private tourism businesses that marketed the site and transported tourists to visit the site didn’t assume responsibility for the poor facilities at the site.

And whilst everybody else washed their hands of the issue, the community stepped up to the plate. They fostered a partnership with the Outdoor Access Trust for Scotland. Between them, they worked together on a plan that comprised a car park, toilet facilities and improved pathways.

The Scottish Government provided funding through the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund, a brilliant and innovative fund first delivered by Fiona Hyslop, then the Cabinet secretary with responsibility for tourism.

Roll on five years, and I found myself with a big set of scissors cutting the ribbon on the cubicles. You see, these cubicles symbolised a lot more than waste.

For years, the community had felt disempowered and disenfranchised, victims of the disruption and congestion they suffered. No public or private body felt their pain as acutely as they did, and therefore did not have an incentive to fix the problem. But the liability could become an asset if local people were empowered to solve it. And that’s exactly what happened; it became an asset.

The gain for the community wasn’t just that the problem had been relieved, it was greater than that.

The financial benefit from the car park and facilities was reinvested in community facilities – including a community bus. I spoke to some older members of the community who could now travel from a remote part of Skye into town, meeting friends or getting their shopping. It actually relieved social isolation and loneliness, fostering a greater sense of community cohesion.

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Enabling visitors to contribute – not to national coffers or the Treasury – to local causes and local needs transformed the visitor experience and residents’ lives.

The truth of the issue is this; there’s always a solution to some of the economic challenges we face, but you’ve got to face up to the local impact and importance of community empowerment. Every local asset, whether that is land, buildings, resources or talent, should be to the benefit of the local community. They should have a say over how it is run, how it is built or how it is used. And the benefits should all be reinvested or recycled locally.

That requires a massively decentralised approach to policymaking. It means that, at the very least, local authorities are able to vary policies from region to region. It also means that local community groups should have greater power and say than the chief executive of a local authority. Start with those groups, don’t end with them. Build policies from the grassroots. Consider the impact at the outset, not after the policy has been drafted.

There is great potential in every corner of Scotland for a thriving economy. Whether it is food and drink, energy or tourism, the value in those sectors is not found solely in how much tax it raises or how many jobs it creates nationally.

The real value is local – the extent to which it strengthens community resilience, increases community prosperity, and allows equal access to opportunities for all citizens.

And when a national target rides roughshod over local need or interest then how the policy is being delivered must be reconsidered. The purpose might be sound, but the process might not be.

Communities around the world are facing up to the challenges of balancing the economic value of tourism and the needs of local residents. Barcelona and Venice have perhaps been at the forefront of these considerations.

They are far from alone.

The same question is being debated and discussed across villages and towns of the Highlands. Glenfinnan, Arisaig and Morar, Dornoch and Chanonry Point – to name just a few – are also grappling with these questions. Tourism historically has been one of the most effective economic tools to stem depopulation. It has allowed communities to grow and develop, rather than disappear.

A significant percentage of residents can only remain living in these areas because of they derive their livelihoods from tourism.

They host guests in B&Bs and short-term lets. They feed visitors in wonderful restaurants and cafes. They are the plumbers, brickies and cleaners who support the sector. Without tourism, the Highlands would be a lot more depopulated than it is just now.

The key is working together, at the most local level, to ensure economic development is a local asset – not a liability. The results could be transformational, to ensure a long-term sustainable future for the next generation anywhere in Scotland.

If a solution can be found at the Fairy Pools, which turned a challenge into a great opportunity, then solutions can be found anywhere. Chanonry Point, Arisaig and Morar, Glencoe (among others) are crying out for tools to manage the pressures.

Blunt, national legislation won’t work half as well as localised, collaborative solutions. To do that, we need to empower local groups, listen to local residents and pioneer radical, new, flexible solutions – which might just work a lot better.