Cruising Grounds and Fairy Tales

As runaway climate change alters the physical experience of summer, possibly permanently, people from these shores are navigating how or whether to travel abroad, and some minds are turning to what this means for Scotland. Like in most things we are anywhere between twenty and fifty years too late in our thinking.

As Italy and Spain and Greece burn-up – and places like Sudan begin an exodus – the issue of climate refugees and radically altered tourism patterns looms large. Of course attitudes to refugee status and immigration are laced with racism, and in this country we have (as yet) no alternative but to abide by the British states horrendous new laws.

The tourism industry is basically flipping. While previous patterns showed people from northern Europe visiting the south for heat and sun, now some of these parts have become virtually uninhabitable at certain parts of the year. Inland communities and big cities will just bake for three months of the year unless and until radical redesigns are implemented and the necessary climate action is taken. But as we know its the emissions already ‘out there’; that will continue to have impact. Climate change and its impacts is not like a switch you can turn on and off.

The geographer Cameron McNeish this week raised a pertinent question: “How is the Scottish Government preparing for future over-tourism when Brits won’t want to travel to very hot countries and Europeans come to Scotland to escape the heat? What new infrastructure is planned?” I suspect we all know the answer to this already.

Questioning tourism is met with stony silence, as if talking to the Mayor of Amity Island. This is the cash cow and the industry is deeply embedded in long-term planning for how to ‘develop’ the industry which shapes our cities and our economy.  You might think that the pandemic experience – a brief glimpse into clear skies and clean air – would have been a stepping stone into a different future – but you’d be completely wrong. Last year Edinburgh Airport saw international fliers Increase by 435%.The number of people travelling through Edinburgh Airport went from 1,530,909 in 2021 to 8,197,756 in 2022, an increase of 6,666,847 people or 435%. The number of domestic fliers saw a less pronounced jump, going from 1,500,231 in 2021 to 3,064,117 in 2022, an increase of 1,563,886 or 104% – still a massive increase. Where I hear you ask is the strategy to create low carbon or no-carbon travel alternatives? I suspect we all know the answer to this already.

There are of course countries which take seriously alternative travel routes whether that is by sail or train or by bike. But you’re not in one of those.

Other than mass flying the other industry that’s actively being encouraged here is the cruise industry, another industry that briefly looked as if it might collapse through the covid pandemic. Who wants to travel on a huge floating petri-dish that belches massive emissions? Lots apparently. Now they’re building a massive cruise ship terminal by blasting away the beautiful entrance to Stornoway harbour. The World of Cruising (in-house mag) gushes: “It’s all go for Stornoway! The Hebridean capital has breached record numbers of cruise-ship visitors, and that’s before the new deep water cruise port opens next year. Big things are on the horizon, and it’s about time…There has been a welcome boost for businesses in the Outer Hebrides lately, with an influx of cruise passengers lapping up the culture. All that activity has subsequently injected the Hebridean economy with much needed buoyancy.”

Calum Brown continues: “The seven-day period ending on July 6 proved to be the busiest cruising week on record, with more than 8000 passengers from seven cruise ships absorbing the area’s unique mantra.”

“We reckon that records could be broken several times over the next two years. And it’s about time that Stornoway made the spotlight, as the Outer Hebrides – arguably – makes for the greatest British cruise destination on offer.The best bit? All that progress comes before the opening of Stornoway Port’s Deep Water Terminal, set to unlock the Hebrides for cruise ships previously banished from port due to excessive dimensions. Suddenly, the Hebridean economic future looks very bright, indeed.”

Another take could be that cruise ships disgorge thousands of people onto rural communities to little economic benefit. They don’t stay there and they often don’t eat there either. Already word is that the infrastructure around Callanish, Broch, Rodel can’t cope – much like the infrastructure around key sites on Skye are completely overwhelmed. Will anyone listen, is any alternative planned? Absolutely not. Are we serious about changing society and culture to really respond to the climate breakdown? I suspect we all know the answer to this already.

Of course some places, like Venice and Amsterdam have begun to take action to curtail the massive over tourism they have suffered that has overwhelmed their cities and destroyed aspects of their culture. But that would require a local resistance and agency we do not have here. The legislation to curb short-term lets is pathetic and at least a decade too late and the proposals for a tourist tax have been hijacked by those very people who have profiteered from the situation. In this sense, urban and rural Scotland are mirrors of each other, places where local resources are over-used by people who bring little to the economy while locals cling on in adversity ignored and often exploited by an industry that nobody wants to talk about.

In Amsterdam the council has banned cruise ships from the city centre as the Dutch capital tries to limit visitor numbers and curb pollution. Aside from the cultural impact of massive over tourism (Hello Edinburgh!) the other key reason for removing cruise ships is to lower air pollution levels in Amsterdam. A 2021 study of one big cruise ship found that it had produced the same levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in one day as 30,000 trucks.

Of course the media reports things like the massive expansion of flights through Edinburgh airport – or the massive Stornoway expansion as great news stories. We are still lashed to the central single story we tell ourselves of economic growth forever and ever on a finite planet. This is a fairy tale and its one with a particularly grim ending. The only problem is it’s a fairy tale that you and I are actually living in. There are a great many industries and practices that can be radically or wholly decarbonised. Aviation isn’t one of them. Sea travel is if we return to sail, which could be beautiful, if radically down-scaled. Speaking the truth about the tourism industry is not popular, but the more you look at these practices they seem wildly stupid given the predicament we are in.

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  1. Hugh McShane says:

    Very informative, especially the info. on Edinburgh + Stornoway- we are blind to the tendrils of the International tourist industry- I’ve seen the effects of thousands debouching from the Alaskan cruise ships into the small Inside Passage communities- is it a free for all in Norway? (or are the cruise ships welcome in the fjords?)

  2. Cathie Lloyd says:

    I wish there was more positive in what you’e writing these days. Sadly experience shows us the huge problems thrown up by badly planned tourist initiatives, I’ve seen some of the impact of the NC500 and the attempts of communities to respond to the absence of planning for those extra numbers.. I think you’re right to look at experiences around the world, where cities charge a tourism tax to visitors – as we’ve been debating endlessly it seems, or limiting access to city centres to tourist buses. Its a debate we have to have, but lets try to focus on what we can do rather than moan too much about what we havent. That is disempowering, and we need to formulate a response quickly.

    1. Yes there are alternatives – and good ones from around the world. But I suppose the broader picture is accepting the scale of crisis we are in – which is the bit that seems to be missing. Business as usual in the face of enormous changes and upheaval seems to be the order of the day. It’s a new form of denialism.

      Yes the NC500 is a disaster too imho.

      I will try and focus on and commission some of the positive alternatives that are emerging!

  3. Jacob Bonnari says:

    I was unaware of the cruise terminal plans for Stornoway and had a look at the Stornoway Harbour Board’s website.

    The project is about much more than cruise ships, it I also about putting in place infrastructure to develop the island’s economy for renewables in particular the opportunities afforded by the fixed and floating offshore wind projects in the Scotwind round.

    There is a quayside 360m long with 10m draft and a Roro ferry berth with 140m long and 8m draft and a haul road that connects the new deep water facility with the fabrication yard.

    While I agree with your points about cruising generally and your concerns about a flip in tourist destinations, I’m wondering what you think the economy of the Outer Hebrides (and the other island groups) should be based on?

    I’m not being reactionary, but I if we are going to have to change or economies and societies to adapt to and mitigate climate change then the people of the islands are going to have to say what their end goal looks like.

    Is it fishing?
    Is it tourism?
    Is it crofting?
    Is it woollens?
    Is it aquaculture?
    Is it wind farming?
    Is it hydrogen production?
    Is it as Tiktok/YT/Insta influencers?

    How does the food get in?
    Where does the fresh fruit, vegetables and juices come from?
    How do people get to Edinburgh from the islands? How long will it take?
    Can people from the islands still go on holiday to Southern Europe?

    What does it look like and what is needed to get there within 10y? How many people can the islands sustain?

    Rather than clasp our ears and close our eyes to keep out the noise, these are things that we have to discuss and make decisions on.

    The implications seem to me that we end up with a much smaller world where travel and exchange of goods takes much longer and food is grown locally with seasonality and less choice, and the only permitted technology is that which helps sustain basic functions. A sort of 1970s tech level with cleaner energy production and transport.

    1. Thanks Jacob. Certainly diversifying and radically altering our whole economy – and what we think the economy is going to be essential. Yes to local food production, micro and community renewables, (truly) sustainable and regenerative fishing and aquaculture, smaller and low-impact eco tourism, sustainable and joined-up transport systems, massive reforestation and local social house-building, crofting are all doable and readily available but need coordination ambition and funding.

      1. Antoine Bisset says:

        I agree completely. I do not accept that climate change (if that is occurring) is caused by people. We live on a ball of fire taking energy from a ball of fire, and our planet was a bit hotter in the past. However, we do need to do things better, and your list goes a long way towards that.
        Yet daftness prevails. There is no end to end whole life (and beyond) Cost/Benefit analysis of wind turbines, electric vehicles, mobile phones and the like.
        As for tidal power, the clever engineers at the Heriot-Watt and elsewhere have been working on this “Holy Grail”of energy production for many decades. Every new machine put into the sea has been reduced to a tangled heap of junk within a very short time.

        1. What are your qualifications for disagreeing with the best scientists known to humanity? What specialism are you in?

        2. Drew Anderson says:

          You must have seen some compelling evidence against the consensus, if you’re rejecting anthropogenic climate change; care to share it?

          We don’t live “on a ball of fire”, that stage passed aeons ago.

          The Sun is indeed a ball of fire, but the planet itself is cooling internally; the temperature of the biosphere is in constant flux. It has been warmer in recorded history.

          Daftness does prevail; looking at cost/benefit analyses of of a few specifics, against the cost/no benefits of doing nothing is pure folly. No doubt you’ll disagree on that.

          To which version of “tidal power” are you referring; I suspect tidal barrages? Are you aware that tidal capture and instream tidal exist?

        3. Magog says:

          To be fair, I think that the Pentland Firth tidal power plant is working fine. In the scheme of things, it doesen’t generate that much electricity, and presumably generates very little at slack-tide, but it works and should do Orkney. That is undoubtedly because it is on the seafloor. If it was on the surface, yes, it would be trashed – there is no stopping the sea. Surface tidals schemes tend to be made of near-shore reinforced concrete. I am more concerned about the design-life of offshore windfarms – if you put something in the sea where it is windy, it’s going to get hammered by wind and wave (think of a 30m wave breaking over the top of the whole thing – it’s like getting hit by a 9-story block of flats). The prospect of replacing every single one of them every 20-30 years is seriously onerous if they have structural jackets pinning them to the seabed, and will generate a pretty unpleasant and extensive onshore windfarm structure decommisioning industry.

  4. mark leslie edwards says:

    Sivin raed marroes hud appeared where the tattie patch wis formerly & ah thocht tae masel, the c*nts huv clearly overstept the mark this time. Not content wi fencing aff & then contaminating the ancestral homelands, they huv begun wunce more dispersing the ald glow in the dark o’er specific locations in the toun in a renewed push tae drive oot the last remaining locals & huv the toun wan hunner percent crabtastic. Nay point informing the local rag, it being controlled by a coupla English overlords based in Sussex, & nay point informing the local authority that wis aboot as local as a tartan lidded jar ae mango chutney. It wid appear the expectation wis fir punters such as masel tae simply git thinner than they hud ivir imagined humanly possible. Hopefully a stray missile wid tak me oot, or the lowland parleymint micht send ane ae they euthanasia kits prior tae the starvation becoming that painful cutting wan’s throat proved a blessing.

  5. Evan Alston says:

    I had decided not to fly any more and took trains down to Abruzzo in Italy in June from Edinburgh. Unfortunately I had to get back home early so flew home from Rome. Defeating my purpose. I Noticed at least 6 private jets take off in under an hour at the airport.
    In any case I had over 24hrs in Rome.
    I had last been there 20 years previously to visit a pal and his wife. As I recall, then I strolled into the pantheon (maybe a dozen or so other people) and waited 10 minutes max to access st Pauls. Last month it was impossible to get into either without a long long wait. There was a queue to get out of st Paul’s. Trevi fountain Square, no chance. I took to back streets for some peace (came across Aldo Morrow’s memorial. Where his body was dumped. Sad and very shocking. What consequences).
    Fellow Tourists were using taxis in great numbers to get about yet the bus service is very good too and not crowded. The Car dominates utterly. I saw a sign signaling parking at €1 an hour, in central Rome.
    My point is that It wasn’t enjoyable being there. In 25°c heat too. Not 42°c.
    I’ve been pondering too, when will wealthy southern Europeans begin buying up houses in the north of the continent. If not already.

      1. James Mills says:

        Robbing St Peter to pay St Paul ?

    1. James Mills says:

      Robbing St Peter to name check St Paul ?

    2. Thanks Evan – I don’t know about wealthy southern Europeans – I don’t know how to track that – but certainly people from southern Britain have been doing that for years and this accelerated during lockdown. I was at an event in Argyll recently and everyone (I mean everyone) was from England.

    3. John Learmonth says:

      Ever fancied taking your holidays in Blackpool?

      1. John Learmonth says:

        I was in Blaclkpool recently and everyone, I mean everyone was from Glasgow.

        1. Had they bought properties there?

  6. mark leslie edwards says:

    Sivin raed marroes hud appeared where the tattie patch wis formerly & ah thocht tae masel, the c*nts huv clearly overstept this time. Not content wi fencing aff the ancestral homelands & then contaminating those lands wi thir spent uranium, they huv begun wunce more dispersing the ald glow in the dark o’er specific locations in the toun in a renewed push tae drive oot the few remaining locals & mak the toun wan hunner percent crabtastic. Nay point informing the so-called local rag, it being owned by a coupla English overlords based in Sussex, & nay point informing the local authority fitch wis aboot as local as a tartan lidded jar ae mango chutney. Nay point informing yer local MP who wid only report ye tae Polis Alba & huv ye lifted fir not talking in the voice of a privately educated English aristocrat. It wid appear the expectation wis fir punters such as masel tae simply git thinner than ivir imagined humanly possible till they simply vanished frae the face ae the planet. Hopefully a stray missile wid tak me oot, or thir less than holy lowland office micht send ane ae they euthanasia kits prior tae the starvation becoming that painful cutting wan’s throat proved a blessing.

  7. Sandy Watson says:

    Yes, growing tourism has become the ‘fall-back’ answer for areas with failing ‘traditional industries. It was never going to be sustainable (in any sense).

    And avoiding (too late) or mitigating (might help, who knows?)climate catastrophe means stopping doing so many things that are now staples of human behaviour everywhere, and especially in the so-called developed world.

    Cars, travel and transport generally, plastics, energy use, food production, etc etc…who can see themselves or others living without these things?

    My horrible guess is that countries, states, governments, that are able to, will be investing heavily in weapons and defence to deal with/try to prevent mass migration the like of which we’ve not seen so far, as millions of people start to move from areas affected by floods, drought, famine, lack of good water and clean air.

    1. We dont need to ‘live without’ travel and transport or food production we just need to reconceive how to do them. We know how to do all of this.

      1. Sandy Watson says:

        Of course, what I mean is living without them as they are now.
        I sense that the changes needed in order to save the situation in any meaningful measure, are just not acceptable to most people. Indeed most seem unwilling to contemplate them seriously at all.

        1. They are almost unimaginable to many – but a large part of this is the result of big business propaganda and massive failure of political leadership

          1. Sandy Watson says:

            Of course it is. And I don’t see that changing much any time soon.

            But there is also personal responsibility and the failure of that that leads to culpability ie the unwillingness to speak-up and act, the apathy and lethargy, that when faced with serious issues – issues that need effort, bring some discomfort – get in the way of change for the better.
            And there’s also the selfishness and self-interest among many of those who ‘have got’ and are comfortable as opposed to those who ‘have not’ and have a right to be unhappy with their lot.

  8. WT says:

    I apologise that this is slightly off topic but it is very much related. I note your continued concern for the planet and climate change in particular, but there are easy ways to halt the process it is just that they are unacceptable to the majority of persons on the planet and possibly to you too.
    Some questions:
    How many devices do you have in your home that have standby mode? How many in Europe? How many in the world? Energy used up for lazy people.
    Have you a refrigerator or a freezer, perhaps both? How many in Europe? How many in the world? Energy used up unnecessarily for the preserving of dairy produce, meat or guff – or the result of overbuying.
    Do you have a car with an engine larger than say 1000cc? Why? Is it a 4 x 4 ? Why? Unnecessarily large vehicles on the road for oversized egos or oversized people.
    How many devices do you have in your home that do the same thing? Computer, mobile, smart TV, tablet – do you need all of these? How many of the people in your home have these? Do they all need them? Unnecessary tat for people who should know better.

    On this website occasionally a soft call is made for radical measures on climate change, you have even supported JSO and others whose actions alienate people. If you really want a radical solution and one that will work then simply limiting the energy people use each day should do it. Innovative ways could be found to do this such as a general amount we are all allocated and that use of anything above that is charged punitively. Or a simple ‘once the daily total is used up the lights and the TVs go out’.
    People don’t like the solutions that affect their lifestyle, they would rather talk about things than do the thing.

      1. WT says:

        Apologies, JSO = Just Stop Oil but I think it was actually Extinction Rebellion.

    1. Judith Brennan says:

      Yes, Jacob.
      Has the environment of any area been improved by tourism? Has tourism improved the physical health and intellectual wellbeing of any population? Isn’t tourism the creation of fantasies for those who have more when they visit those who have less?
      Tourism relies on the creation of a servant class for the clueless, the feverish sewing of curtains to hang between economic-cultural reality and ‘the holiday experience’.
      Cancun hasn’t done much for Mexico, neither have the piles of faeces and other waste shipped regularly from islands such as Ischia done much for Italy. Turn your back on the Dutch canal in Negombo and you’ll see rubbish piled high.
      Will Scottish communities choose this route to a better life? We shall see.

  9. Derek says:

    I don’t suppose you have the flight numbers for 2019? That was probably the last complete year – unaffected by the covid. The 2021 figure might be artificially low.

  10. Magog says:

    Aberdeen’s new deep-water port was also billed as a cruise-ship terminal. Although the port is busy, there haven’t been any cruise ships. A deep-water port is just a deep-water port. Stornoway may well end up with drilling rigs using their new facilities, the same as Aberdeen South. Beware of ‘cruise-ship terminal’ being used as a handy bit of marketing leverage for port extensions. It looks like you need more than a stone circle, or even Balmoral and a bunch of castles to get a huge cruise-ship to bother to moor.

  11. John Monro says:

    Worthwhile article, Mike, well expressed, my thoughts for some years too. Sad to hear how your quiet places in Scotland are no longer so , and of course how little of it you actually own. No reset after covid, same here in NZ. Cruise ships, aeroplanes ++ Basically we’re insane. Yet I’m flying to the UK to visit my family, four daughters all who live in the UK. I openly expressed a thought I might not come, because of global warming. The reaction was massive, I was shot down in flames. Not that they aren’t worried about global warming but they all told me my responsibilities to my family outweighed my moral concern, and my one flight was in itself trivial, like no drop of rain……… So I’m doing what I’ve been told, and the world will continue to burn. I am grateful that this fading old man is still important in my family’s life, of course, but my conscience isn’t assuaged. And as I’ve done all my life, I continue to make my significant contribution to this terrible state of affair, conscience or no. . .

  12. mark leslie edwards says:

    if this doesn’t make you want to vomit all over the nearest member of the scottish parliament I don’t know what’s wrong with you but you’re way fkn wrong

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