Sustainable tourism in Scotland is a passion of mine. When I hiked the Scottish National Trail I fell head over heels for Scotland’s landscape and I made a promise to myself to protect it fiercely.
Now that tourism is reopening in Scotland [Hallelujah!], sustainable tourism is more important now than ever. Everyone is itching to travel around Scotland, and overtourism in Scotland is sure to make a return.
One of the most effective tips for protecting Scotland’s environment is not to travel here at all- however this isn’t realistic. I’d love for everyone to experience Scotland’s awe-inspiring landscapes, welcoming hospitality and have a dram with the lovely locals. It’s a tough one when the answer to a more sustainable planet is to travel less, when travel for many of us is our passion and reason for being. Especially after being cooped up for so long!
But there is good news: we lessen our impact on Scotland and still enjoy her bonnie hills, bustling cities and colourful coastline, IF you implement as many of these tips for sustainable travel in Scotland as possible.
Let’s make a vow to enjoy Scotland while helping to protect the environment and supporting local communities!
Want to know the most recent rules and travel restrictions in Scotland? Read my Covid-19 guide that is updated every week with the current information.
What is Sustainable Tourism?
Sustainable essentially means travelling in a way that minimizes harm to the environment, local communities, and wildlife. To me, sustainable tourism is also about making an effort to leave a destination in a better way than you found it. My tips in this article will help you to achieve just that!
25 Sustainable Tourism in Scotland Tips
1. Leave no trace
I’m starting with a fairly obvious one, but it needs to be said.
Scotland is generous when it comes to its freedom. Scotland has a ‘freedom to roam’ law in place which means everyone in Scotland has legal access to land and inland water throughout Scotland.
This is great for hikers and outdoor lovers in Scotland; you can walk and wild camp nearly anywhere. Most people may think they’re abiding by the ‘leave no trace’ principle, however many are not adhering to this law without realising it. If you’re hiking in Scotland in a popular area, stick to the existing paths. If you go off-piste, this can cause damage to the ecosystems that surround the trail.
However, if you’re hiking in a pristine area, such as in the north-west Highlands, disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and paths and avoid areas that are starting to suffer from impact.
2. Avoid tourist hotspots
I’ve written a blog post about overtourism in Scotland; the places to avoid and the places to go instead, so make sure you give that a read. The main places that suffer from overtourism is Edinburgh and the Isle of Skye. There are honestly SO many other places that are just as nice, if not better, so why not go off the beaten path in Scotland instead?
3. Visit in the shoulder or off-season
A more even spread of visitors reduces the pressure on Scotland’s environment, popular ancient attractions, and communities. Scotland is heaving with tourists during July and August, so plan your trip to Scotland between October and April once [international travel reopens] if you can. These are quiet times for small businesses who really need the cash flow. As a bonus- there are less tourists around and you’ll have a better opportunity to mingle with the locals!
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>> Read more: My favourite autumn breaks in Scotland
4. Reduce the number of flights you take where possible
If you’re flying to Scotland, try to book the most direct flight possible. Doing so generates fewer greenhouse gases per journey, as take-off and landing uses more fuel than when the plane is in the air. Also research which airlines currently have the greenest policies (research everything from the type of fuel they use to their on-board plastic policies).
5. Pack lightly when you fly
Finnair claims it could save between 1-2 million kilograms of fuel per year if passengers packed their luggage 1 kilogram lighter every time they fly! The same goes for all airlines: pack lighter, travel more economically.
6. Bring these eco-friendly travel products with you
When packing for a trip to Scotland I always recommend bringing the following:
- reusable straws [with a cleaning pipe]
- a collapsible water bottle
- collapsible coffee mug [for takeaway coffee/hot wine at the winter markets]
- reusable bags [or a good quality hiking backpack].
You’ll use less plastic, and save money on buying bags to carry your groceries and shopping [you have to purchase all carry bags in Scotland].
7. Stay in eco-friendly accommodation
Look for accommodation that utilises solar power, rainwater harvesting, energy-efficient lighting and serves meals made from locally sourced ingredients.
Some of my recommendations for eco stays include:
- JustB City Retreat in Edinburgh
- The Lazy Duck Lodge in Nethy Bridge
- Eagle Brae in Struy [Scottish Highlands]
- Loch Ossian Youth Hostel in Corrour [Rannoch Moor]
8. Help out your hosts
Always make sure that when you’re not in your accommodation you turn the lights, heating and television off. If you’re staying in a hotel or bed and breakfast reuse your towels by hanging them up so the cleaners won’t take them away for washing. Leaving the ‘do not disturb’ hanger on your door also discourages cleaners, which will save on energy and usage of cleaning products. Let’s face it- your toilet doesn’t need to be cleaned every day!
9. Shop locally
Scotland has some truly wonderful local craft, clothing and book stores. Avoid chain retail stores on the high street and shop at independently owned stores or markets instead. You’ll pick up gifts that are unique and hand-made by local Scottish folk, which is SO much more special. Markets are also a popular place to pick up environmentally friendly products. Win-win.
10. Eat at eco-friendly restaurants
If you’re eating out, go to independent restaurants that source their ingredients locally. You can usually find restaurants that do this by doing a quick scan of their website. Most sustainable restaurants in Scotland will state on their website if they use organic and/or local ingredients.
Consuming less meat and animal products will also benefit the environment. I’m not vegan, however I have been to some fantastic vegan restaurants in Scotland. To find vegan restaurants the Happy Cow website and app is fantastic. And if you’re eating out in Edinburgh, check out the blog Vegan Edinburgh for inspiration.
Restaurants with yummy vegan options I personally recommend include:
- Harmonium in Leith, Edinburgh
- Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum [the vegan haggis tastes better than actual haggis!]
- Black Isle Bar in Inverness
- Stacks Coffee House & Bistro at John O’Groats
- The Storehouse in Dingwall
11. Travel with eco-friendly tour companies
Do your research on eco-friendly tour companies and try to book tours with small, local businesses where possible. Airbnb Experiences is a good place to find locals who offer unique tours, including many walking and photography tours. Rabbies is an eco-conscious tour provider I recommend for single and multi-day small group tours.
12. Look for businesses that have Green Tourism certification
The Green Tourism scheme is an accreditation organisation in Scotland which hands out Bronze, Silver and Gold awards to businesses that are making an effort towards a more sustainable Scotland. Businesses that apply are assessed against a set of criteria, including energy and water usage, waste management, biodiversity, involvement in the community and more. You will know that businesses with these awards are doing their utmost for a sustainable Scotland- so book your tour, accommodation, lunch date etc with them! You can search for businesses in Scotland that have been awarded a Green Tourism award here.
13. Ask businesses in Scotland to limit their plastic use
If you do see a business in Scotland who appears to be using too much plastic, don’t be afraid to have a chat with whoever is in charge or leave a feedback card letting them know they could be doing things more economically. When leaving a Google review, politely suggest how they could be more eco-friendly. A lot of businesses are still catching on to eco-tourism, so why not give them a polite shove in the right direction?
14. Try to walk/cycle everywhere
Whenever the Haggis and I travel to a new city, we walk everywhere. It’s a great opportunity to discover local gems such as neighbourhoods, shops, cafes and pubs- and we have discovered many interesting places by travelling this way. Cities in Scotland such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth and Dundee are easily accessible on foot.
The Scottish Government has put a lot of funding into improving cycle routes in the country resulting in some fantastic cycle paths throughout Scotland. There are a few canal towpaths that connect cities and towns that you can easily walk or cycle. You can walk or cycle from Edinburgh to Glasgow [or vice versa] along the Union canal and the Forth & Clyde. You can also walk/cycle between Inverness and Corpach [near Fort William] along the Caledonian Canal.
15. Use public transport where possible
When you can’t walk or cycle, using public transport versus hiring a car is far better for the environment. Getting from Edinburgh to Glasgow [and vice versa] is super easy on the train, and the bus systems are great in these cities and throughout Scotland. I recommend riding the West Highland Line to see some of Scotland’s most spectacular terrain!
16. Hire a hybrid or electric car
If you want to do a road trip around Scotland, hire a hybrid or electric vehicle. They use less fuel and produce fewer carbon emissions than your average car. Avis is one company that hires out electric and hybrid cars. You could also hire a private driver like Nicolas from E-City Chauffeur who offers tailor-made tours and experiences around Scotland in his Tesla.
17. Slow down
Reducing your transportation usage is another great way to look after the environment. It’s tempting to whip around Scotland to see and experience as much as possible, however, in my super honest opinion: Scotland is not a country you want to rush around. Take a breath, slow down and get to know the area you’re staying in. Choose quality time over the quantity of activities ticked off the bucket list.
18. Know your codes
19. Pick up rubbish when out walking
Campers and walkers leaving litter behind has esculated during lockdown with more and more people heading outside. When the Haggis and I go walking we always make an effort to pick up at least three pieces of litter we see lying on the ground. While it’s not our rubbish, it’s still our responsibility to protect our home. It’s actually turned into a fun game for us! Make sure you wear gloves and take a bag you can put the rubbish into. Just imagine how much cleaner Scotland would be if everyone picked up a few pieces of litter every time they went for a walk!
20. Pick up after yer dug!
For a while I was mystified at the amount of dog poop bags I would see on my daily walks and when out hiking. Why would people bother bagging it, just to leave it behind? Wouldn’t that slow down the degradation process? Is there a Scottish poo fairy that I didn’t know about?
Turns out some people are just lazy and will bag their doggy poo to come back for it later…or not at all. Don’t be that person- carry it with you and dispose of it correctly. I recommend purchasing a dicky bag– a small machine washable bag you can place your bagged poo in that will contain the odour. Or at the very least, flick the poo into the undergrowth with a stick so it’s out of the way.
21. Avoid animal tourism unless you’re sure they’re ethical
No one should be using animals to make a profit, and by supporting these businesses you are supporting unethical animal practices. Only visit a paid animal attraction in Scotland if you are 100% sure it is ethical. But if you’re unsure, why not opt to see Scotland’s wild animals in their natural habitat instead? Scotland has a diverse range of wildlife, especially birdlife. Head to the Isle of May or Handa Island to see puffins and other sea cliff nesting birds, or explore the Birds of Prey Trail in the Outer Hebrides and see the incredible birdlife Scotland has to offer!
22. Do not feed wild animals
While the idea of feeding wild deer in the Scottish Highlands may sound really cool, it is highly unethical and can cause digestive upset and other health issues for animals. It’s also dangerous to get that close to wildlife- because they are just that: wild. Wild deer, especially stags, can charge if they feel threatened. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of a head butt from a wild stag! Feeding wild animals also encourages them to seek out humans for food, leading them out of their natural environments which can cause higher mortality on roads.
23. Photograph brochures and flyers
If you’re visiting Edinburgh during the August festivals, you’ll be handed all kinds of flyers from people promoting shows. It’s far better to photograph a flyer and hand it back to be reused rather than eventually throwing the flyer away.
24. Turn off your flash
Many museums, castles and palaces in Scotland [such as Holyrood Palace] won’t let you photograph artwork or artifacts they have on display. Why? Well, light is known to cause damage to artwork, and if light can damage artwork, imagine what a flash on a camera can do! Many pieces of art and artifacts in Scotland are so old and delicate that they won’t survive ignorant tourists wanting to get a snap for the ‘gram. Don’t be that kind of tourist; ask a staff member if you are unsure if you can take photos or not.
25. Explore and help protect Scotland’s historic monuments
I’ve been an Historic Scotland member for a couple of years now, and aside from getting free entry to over 70 historic sites in Scotland, what I love is that the money from my membership goes toward restoring these ancient monuments. If you’re a tourist you can purchase a 3, 7 or 14 day Explorer pass but if you’re a resident I highly recommend signing up for an annual membership. The membership is around £4 per month, and not only have I gotten my money’s worth, I feel good that I am helping to protect Scotland’s history.
I hope this list has given you a few ideas on how you can be a more responsible traveller in Scotland. Have you learned something from this list? If you have a tip for sustainable travel in Scotland drop it in the comments below. I’m always interested to learn new tips on sustainable travel. Did you spot an error? Let me know- I’m always looking to improve.
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