'Levelling up'

A new initiative for rural tourism: How IsleHoliday plans to help rebalance the sector

By Kirsten Gow, University of Aberdeen, and Lorna J Philip, University of Aberdeen

Concerns over the impact of tourism in economically fragile rural areas of Scotland has led to the development of a new initiative designed to help island communities gain more value from tourism in their area.  This new platform may change how you book your holidays!

As the winter months are put behind us thoughts often turn to the approach of summer and holiday opportunities.  Where are you thinking your summer holiday will take you this year, somewhere abroad or does a domestic break interest you? You reach for your laptop, find your favoured booking platform and start searching for accommodation in rural Scotland, perhaps on one of the islands.  Did you notice if your platform applies a booking fee?  Did you think about whether your booking would bring direct financial benefits to the community you’ll visit? 

The tourism industry is one of the fastest growing economic sectors in the world and, with the UK in the top ten global tourism destinations, the sector is an increasingly important part of the domestic economy. In Scotland the industry is worth an estimated £6billion per year and supports around 8.5% of all Scottish jobs.  Although Edinburgh dominates the Scottish tourism landscape, total employment in the industry is highest in Argyll and Bute, Highland, and Perth and Kinross, areas that encompass some of the most remote and sparsely populated mainland and island communities in the country.

Tourism is big business, generating revenue that supports local jobs, shops and other services. Yet, within fragile rural areas, the potential benefits of tourism are finely balanced against the needs of local communities. Amongst the many considerations is the impact of tourism on the local housing market. Visitors need somewhere to stay and demands for accommodation can create tensions between the industry and the wider community.  

Rural tourism and rural housing

Many rural communities have experienced sustained housing challenges leading to a lack of housing, affordable homes in particular, to buy or rent.  Rising property prices, which often price locals out of the market, are in part due to – and exacerbated by – increasing numbers of second properties. These houses may be used exclusively by the owner, for short or long periods, be rented to holiday makers using short-term letting agreements, or be left unoccupied.  In some popular Scottish tourist destinations, such as Highland and Argyll and Bute, significant proportions of the local housing stock are second properties.  For example, on the Isle of Tiree and in West Harris around 4 in 10 houses are holiday homes.  Although these houses are not available for permanent occupation, could communities gain a direct financial benefit from their use as visitor accommodation?   

The proliferation of online accommodation booking sites has simplified short-term letting for property owners.  It is now easier than ever for second property owners to make money from their property by renting it out for short periods.  It has been suggested that in the north of Skye 1 in 5 properties are listed on Airbnb and other short-term letting sites, as locals and those living elsewhere look to maximise the income-generating potential of the second property they own. Meanwhile, and as noted in Scotland’s National Islands Plan, the lack of affordable housing options for those wishing to live permanently within these communities affects individual lives, the potential for economic development and the sustainability of the community as a whole. These challenges have promoted a number of campaigns from those concerned about the impact this is having on their communities, with an open letter concerning the situation in Skye laying out the reasons why signatories feel that the proliferation of short-term lets “is a key driver in killing our local communities, contributing to Gaelic’s decline and degrading island opportunities and culture.”

More widely, concerns that the voices of communities are “frequently drowned out by big tourism operators” were noted at the 2021 Virtual Rural Scottish Parliament session on Community-Led Tourism, whose post-event report called for the industry to “change the engagement narrative from one where the tourism sector mainly strives to ‘alleviate community concerns’ to one where the sector and communities collaborate on place-making”. Within this context those living and working in areas affected by tourism-related housing challenges have begun seeking practical solutions to rebalance the benefit and burden of tourism within their communities. IsleHoliday, the new initiative from not-for-profit island entrepreneurs IsleDevelop, is one such project. 

A not-for-profit rural booking platform

This new accommodation booking platform seeks to harness the demand for holiday lets on Scotland’s islands in order to promote responsible tourism, fund community housing projects, and support island micro businesses.  Billing itself as “the community focussed island alternative to Airbnb”, the service pledges to reinvest profits from booking fee it takes into local island communities through job creation and development of a community fund, allowing more tourist revenue to stay within local areas.

In terms of finding the balance of tourist accommodation and primary housing which is sustainable in the long term for fragile areas, IsleHoliday founder, Rhoda Meek, is pragmatic: “It will take time to change that situation and involve action at a local and national government level. But, in the meantime, the letting market exists… Our goal is to use the current market to generate revenue which can be used to the benefit of our communities, particularly in relation to affordable housing and long-term rental options for residents”.

Income from holiday lets flows into local, rural economies but it also financially benefits absentee property owners and international concerns such as Airbnb.  IsleHoliday exemplifies endogenous efforts to ‘take back control’ of local economic assets and in so doing creates new sources of income with which to support rural community development activities.  So, when you reach for your laptop to search for your summer holiday destination, pause and think about whether your booking could represent direct support to a rural economy … you might enjoy your holiday even more if it does!

About the authors: Kirsten Gow is a PhD Student in Geography at the University of Aberdeen and the James Hutton Institute exploring in-migration to Scotland’s islands to build balanced and sustainable population profiles. Her research is funded by the Macaulay Development Trust.  An islander herself, Kirsten has worked on several community initiatives as well as undertaking roles with Rural Housing Scotland and the Scottish Islands Passport project. Kirsten is a current board member of the Scottish Islands Federation. Lorna J Philip is senior lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Aberdeen.  Her research focuses on contemporary rural life, especially change induced by rural demographic ageing.  She has undertaken research, funded by UK Research Councils, which has focused on retirement transition migration into rural areas, the potential of new digital technologies to promote social interaction amongst older rural adults, patterns of rural digital exclusion and explorations of rural digital divides.  Recent work exploring the long-term impacts of flooding is providing insights into how rural communities respond to an unanticipated sock at different stages of a post-flood journey.  

The cover image is “Balemartine House at the Sliabh” by Nick Jewell and is taken from Flikr. It is reproduced here under a CC-BY 2.0 licence.

Suggested further reading

Dai, L., Wan, L., Xu, B. and Wu, B. (2017), How to improve rural tourism development in Chinese suburban villages? Empirical findings from a quantitative analysis of eight rural tourism destinations in Beijing. Area, 49: 156-165. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12308

Neumeier, S. (2017), Social innovation in rural development: identifying the key factors of success. Geogr J, 183: 34-46. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12180

Scottish Rural Action (2021) Community Led Tourism.  Report of session at the 2021 Virtual Scottish Rural Parliament, March 2021.  Available at https://www.sra.scot/sites/default/files/document-library/2021-06/0.%20vSRP2021%20Session%20Report%20-%20Community%20Led%20Tourism.pdf

Scottish Government (2018) Tourism in Scotland:  The Economic Contribution of the Sector.  A report commissioned by the Tourism Leadership Group.  Available at https://scottishtourismalliance.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Tourism-Economic-Narrative.pdf

How to cite: Gow, K. & Philip L.J. (2022, 5 April) A new initiative for rural tourism: How IsleHoliday plans to help rebalance the sector Geography Directions. Available from: https://doi.org/10.55203/MGER4641

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