A MULTImillion-pound cash pot is a great "first step" in tackling creaking infrastructure at Highland tourist hotspots, a leading business figure believes.
The Federation of Small Businesses’ (FSB) David Richardson has welcomed moves by the Scottish Government to tackle the problem.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week announced the creation of a £6 million Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund in the wake of high-profile problems with surging visitor numbers in the northern Highlands and on Skye.
The booming popularity of the North Coast 500 tourist route has seen tens of thousands of additional tourists flock to the area every year. High-profile TV shows such as Outlander have also sparked an added influx of tourists, as fans rush to visit iconic locations.
Hotel room rates rocketed at the height of the summer season as demand exceeded supply, and residents in parts of the region complained about high traffic levels on minor single-track roads.
But Mr Richardson, who is the FSB’s Highlands and Islands development manager, believes the new fund will help to install much-needed infrastructure to tackle some of the issues, while warning that further money will be needed going forward.
"FSB has been making the case to MSPs and councils for more investment in essential tourism infrastructure for a long time now," he said. "It is gratifying to see this campaign work pay off. Too many of our most beautiful Highland places have inadequate local facilities.
"While £6 million over two years is not a vast amount of money, we would expect that if there’s substantial demand, the fund could be topped up.
"Moreover, this move should only be the start. If we are to maximise the benefits of national and international tourism, our local places will require sustained investment well into the future."
Highland councillor Maxine Smith, who leads the SNP group on the council, has urged the local authority to make sure it gets its bid in for a share of the cash.
She said: "While it is fantastic that these areas are experiencing massive successes in terms of tourism and visitor numbers, it comes at a cost. This is seen in the wear and tear on the roads and infrastructure... where the North Coast 500 is experiencing unprecedented visitor numbers.
"Tourists also require added benefits such as public conveniences, places to empty their disposable toilets, water supplies and also places to dispose of litter. This fund can start to address all of these issues."
She urged Highland Council to "act quickly to secure some of this £6 million funding and ensure that a task group is set up as soon as possible to meet with local councillors, the communities and submit relevant bids."
Meanwhile, tourism agency VisitScotland and the North Coast 500 (NC500) have joined forces to improve quality and information provision along the popular route.
The partnership hopes to ensure that the tens of thousands of visitors who embark on the NC500 will have more access than ever before to information on what to see and do while on their journey.
VisitScotland and NC500 also plan to stage a series of joint roadshows next year focused on the quality of the visitor experience.
A study by the University of Glasgow estimates the route attracted 29,000 extra visitors and £9 million in additional spend in its first year.