"Out of adversity comes opportunity, the current situation at Cairngorm represents a unique opportunity to create something very special."
On 8th February 2019 Cameron McNeish published an article entitled “The Long Walk-in"[i], referencing the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust and raising many questions about the viability and future direction of Cairngorm Mountain as a ski resort and summer attraction. The trust welcomes debate over the future of the estate, and we felt it necessary to respond to some of Cameron's points.
The Cairngorm ski area has polarized opinion between Environmentalists and Outdoor Activities Enthusiasts for many years. The proposed expansions into Lurchers Gulley in 1981 met widespread opposition from environmentalists and led to a public enquiry, a second proposal in 1991 was also met with strong opposition. In 1998 the World Wildlife Federation and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds challenged the legality of the development approval for the funicular railway in the Court of Session. It could be argued that the resulting stalemate benefited nobody, and many of the shortcomings of the funicular project stemmed from this conflict. It is the opinion of the trust that a competent vision for Cairngorm must bring all parties together and we hope to work in cooperation with all stakeholders to achieve a positive future for Cairngorm Mountain.
Cameron makes many arguments to justify the removal of the Cairngorm Ski Area and we address those specifically below.
"Bearing in mind how much tax-payer’s money has already been poured into Cairn Gorm – about £25-30 million some suggest, would it be fair to ask the Scottish Government to help fund a new business on Cairn Gorm from the public purse when competing ski centres in Scotland also struggle with warming weather conditions and diminishing numbers of skiers?"
Whilst the Trust has been critical of the investment decisions that have been made in the past, it’s necessary to put some context behind claims that the investment so far has been for nothing.
There's no disputing that the Cairngorm Ski Area has been the recipient of significant public funds, but were they "poured in"? That emotive wording suggests there was no benefit to the public from that investment. The average annual economic impact of Cairngorm mountain between 2001 and 2010 (which included many ‘poor’ winters) was £11.6Million[ii] and it sustained the equivalent to 184 Full Time Jobs[iii]. In the 20 years since over which this investment was made, this amounts to a benefit of £232 Million to the strathspey economy, in context this figure represents far better value for money than first appears. This does have a caveat, the economic impact of Cairngorm does not benefit the local economy if large administrative and interest payments are being sent out of the area to a private operator as they were over the last 5 years.
Investment decisions should always be based upon anticipated return, whether that return is financial or social, investment in one location or sector should not preclude investment in another, it should be based on the expected return. So absolutely we would welcome investments in other areas where the return on investment is clear, it can only be good for Scottish tourism and the local economies. To put the £25M figure into context, the cost of upgrading 1 mile of the A9 to dual carriageway is £37.5M.
Skier Days across all 5 Scottish Ski Areas from 2003 – 2018
To the point regarding climate change and the "diminishing number of skiers", if you look at real data, skier numbers across Scotland have been INCREASING on average over the last 15 years[iv]. In their review of uplift at Cairngorm Mountain, International Snowsports Consultancy SE Group state: “Overall, the outlook for snow sports is relatively favourable, in that snow sports are expected to remain viable for most of the winter in the Cairngorm area at least through the 2050s”[v]. The threat of climate change is very real and we must take it into account when investing for the future, but the data to hand clearly shows that we are not in a position where we should give up on our skiing industry. The trust and the current owner and development agency are very much in favour of diversification of the business, and year round usage is a key factor in the decision making process on future investment.
“A report by US-based SE Group being considered by HIE suggests it would cost £27M for a new ski infrastructure on Cairn Gorm, including fanciful ideas about zip wires and roller-coasters”
The SE Group report endorsed the trusts’ existing belief that a Mountain Coaster would be an effective strategic investment at Cairngorm. A mountain coaster is far removed from a traditional roller coaster, and highly successful in fragile mountain environments all over the world. It is low noise and has a low visual and environmental impact. With a proven high return on investment, a mountain coaster could easily be privately financed, the trust however would prefer to see the coaster financed by the operating company so that every penny of profit is returned to the mountain business.
Mountain Coaster installations in the USA and Germany
The trust would also like to progress plans for Mountain Bike Trails in Coire Cas. Mountain Biking presents another opportunity to diversify the business, enhancing summer visits and ensuring more staff are retained throughout the year, we believe this can be achieved sensitively, with the construction phase offering the opportunity to enhance the landscape with tree planting and habitat restoration. There are concerns over ‘leakage’ into sensitive areas adjacent to the ski area, we believe we have robust plans to ensure that these areas are protected and welcome the opportunity to develop them alongside conservation bodies.
"So, what if everything was stripped out and the two corries returned to their natural state?"
"What if the public road was closed at Glenmore and the road from there to Coire na Ciste and Coire Cas removed?"
"What if an opportunity existed to bring a real challenge back to hillwalking and mountaineering in the Cairngorms, the challenge of walking and climbing on remote, distant mountains? Possibly fewer people would be attracted to the high tops but many would be content to walk in the forests, indigenous forests rather than densely-packed conifers."
Does the decommissioning of the Funicular represent an opportunity to re-wild the northern Corries and what would the impact of that be? Cameron is suggesting we remove all infrastructure from Coire Cas and Coire na Ciste, and remove the vehicular access. We've already established that this action would result in the loss of £11.6M every year, and 184 Full Time Jobs.
At just 5.98 Km2 the Cairngorm Ski Area occupies just 0.13% of the Cairngorms National Park Area. Scottish Natural Heritage classify 1572 Km2 of land in the National Park as Wild Land and 15197Km2 of Scotland as a whole. It's not realistic to argue that the northern corries are making a huge impact on the availability of wild land in Scotland, and their economic and social impact certainly justify the development of 6km of already developed land. Whilst the Northern Corries are beautiful, their popularity largely stems from ease of access, the northern corries present a unique opportunity for visitors and the less able, to experience the mountain environment.
Cairngorm ski area size in context
Would the removal of 3km of road really "bring a real challenge back to hillwalking and mountaineering in the Cairngorms"? We find it hard to believe this would make much impact, we have no problem finding a challenging hill walking or mountaineering in the Cairngorms! We do however see that it would deprive 450,000 visitors of the opportunity to visit this amazing place every year, specifically depriving access to those who are less experienced and less able.
"perhaps we could see, in years to come, great swathes of Caledonian Pines spread uphill from Rothiemurchus and Glenmore and into the Northern Corries"
Observation and scientific study[vi] show clearly that Caledonian pines grow full size up to 500m altitude and turn to montane scrub above that. The Glenmore forest already reaches its natural altitude limit at 500m, so we're struggling to see the practical realisation of this vision. One of the trusts stated aims is restoration and enhancement of habitat, there is no conflict of interest on that point, environmental improvements benefit everyone and should be a key part of the strategy for Cairngorm going forward.
Out of adversity comes opportunity, the current situation at Cairngorm represents a unique opportunity to create something very special. There is huge passion for the mountain business within the Spey Valley and a wealth of skills and experience. We have the Cairngorms National Park Authority and Scottish Natural Heritage on our doorstep, staffed with experts in sustainable development; Environmental Groups and organisations who are passionate about the unique landscape and habitat. What if we could collectively develop Cairngorm Mountain into a sustainable business, providing skills, employment and economic input, whilst giving visitors access to an amazing mountain environment and enhancing it at the same time. What if we could work together to create a model of sustainable development? A joined up experience from Glen to Summit, with maintained paths and interpretation? A sensitively built visitor attraction that introduces young and old to the wonders of the mountain environment. This is the challenge that Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust lays before the community, public sector, and conservation groups, let’s work together and create a mountain experience we can all be proud of.
[i] The Long Walk-in; Walkhighlands
[ii] Scottish Snowsport Strategic Review; Tourism Resources Company; Table 12 - TOTAL EXPENDITURE – TEN-YEAR AVERAGE (figures adjusted for inflation);
[iii] Scottish Snowsport Strategic Review; Tourism Resources Company; Table 14 - EMPLOYMENT IMPACTS – TEN-YEAR AVERAGE
[iv] Skier Day information gathered from various public sources
[v] Cairngorm Ski Area Feasibility Assessment and Strategic Plan; SE Group; Part 1, 3.E “Weather”, Section 2 “Climate Change and Scotland”
[vi] Montane Scrub; Scottish Natural Heritage Action Group;