Tourism. It’s not just for tourists!

Are you stuck for something to do this weekend? Well you shouldn’t be. For inspiration check out the list of finalists and awards winners at the 2017 Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards. I guarantee you won’t be stuck for long. In fact you might find yourself running out of weekends.

I was in the enviable position of knowing who the Tourism Awards winners were before they did – such are the privileges of having co-hosted the ceremony in Inverness’s Drumossie Hotel last Friday night. Knowing the answers before the envelopes are opened on stage means we avoid any embarrassing Oscar ‘La La Land’ moments. Of course there was always the danger that I might inadvertently ‘do a Prue Leith’ and Tweet the name of the winners before The Big Reveal, but thankfully that didn’t happen. Phew!

A Highlands and Islands Tourism Award is a hard-earned thing, with hotels vying to be voted the most hospitable, restaurants and informal dining establishments competing to take home the coveted ‘piper’ trophy, and visitor attractions hoping to be crowned as simply the best. Entries to the awards came from all over the Highlands and Islands, Argyll and the small isles, and Moray, and ranged from two or three-person operations to multi-million pound turnover establishments.

Winners (and hosts!) of the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards 2017

Awards finalists varied in size and in offering. In the ‘Innovation in Tourism’ category, how on earth did the judges compare the one-woman gastro-experience, Ghillie Basan from Tomintoul, with the whole of the Scottish Wildlife Trust? (A delighted Ghillie took the trophy.) But all the entrants had one thing in common, a deep-rooted desire to showcase the north of Scotland to tourists, and to provide the very best experience for them – one that will have them returning again and again.

As the chair of the Tourism Awards Craig Ewan said on the night, our area has welcomed more visitors in the past year than ever before. The increased number of entries to the awards, not only signified the strength of tourism in the area, but was also testament to the pride more business owners are taking in their tourism businesses.

What the evening celebrated was ‘the best of the best’, which is why I have kept my programme. It lists all the hotels, B&Bs, cafes, pubs, restaurants, heritage sites, outdoor or adventure experiences that beat their competitors to be shortlisted as finalists. And I am going to make it my mission to get round as many as I can before next year’s ceremony.

St Kilda. Image: Go To St Kilda

If all goes to plan I may find myself on a boat to St Kilda, followed by a trip down the rapids on the River Findhorn. I will be rocking in Stornoway during Heb Celt next summer, before joining the 500,000 plus annual visitors to Eilean Donan Castle. I’ll make a point of stopping in at Gordon Castle’s Walled Garden the next time I’m near Fochabers, and I’ll be eating at Table Manors at Achnagairn when Chef Euan Walker is on duty. Euan was among the ‘Rising Starts’ – the young people in whose hands the future success of the Scottish Tourism Industry will rest.

Tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants aren’t just for the benefit of people who have travelled from abroad to visit our wonderful part of the world. Ours are world class, and we can – and should – enjoy them too. After all, they are right here on our doorstep.

So join me in my quest to make the most of what we have at home. Too often I go abroad on holiday and book a boat trip, lured by the promise of fantastic scenery. That scenery is usually pretty enough, but compared to what we have here at home, it falls woefully short.

Amur Tiger at Highland Wildlife Park

As the days shorten for winter it can be hard to get motivated to move from the comfort of our centrally heated homes. But why not plan a trip across the Pentland Firth for lunch in the Ferry Inn in Stromness? Or start training for the Strathpuffer 24 cycle event? You can head to the Highland Wildlife Park – any day except Christmas Day – to see the wildcats, snow monkeys or polar bears. And a day spent exploring Culloden Battlefield will bring to life the true history behind Outlander, and make your cosy evening in front of the box set all the better.

The men and women who operate these businesses take pride in what they do. Their success generates publicity for the Highlands and Islands and keeps visitors coming here, in ever-increasing numbers. That creates employment and helps to sustain our fragile economy, making the area better for us all.

We can’t all afford the best hotels and restaurants, but getting out there needn’t cost an arm and a leg. Take a stroll along a beach, beside a river or through a pine-scented wood and enjoy the change of the seasons, the crispness of the air, and the wildlife all around.

This is ours. Let’s enjoy it. Because tourism shouldn’t be just for the tourists.

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This column first appeared in six SPP Group newspapers week ended 10th November 2017.