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Cairngorm National Park

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National Park status will help Cairngorms rule tourist roost

The River Spey meanders through some of Scotlandís most stunning countryside - yet the people and businesses of Badenoch and Strathspey (B&S) know only too well that having almost unparalleled beauty, the stunning Cairngorms and Monarch of the Glen country on their doorstep has never been a guarantee of success or prosperity.

Community life in rural Scotland is governed by working together for the good of all. Diversity and being able to adapt are also daily requirements.

In what is arguably Scotlandís most complete mini-economic region, you can positively feel the energy and enthusiasm of the residents as many believe that the area is just about to experience itís most exciting era in decades, despite concerns over tourist numbers, the after-effects of the foot-and-mouth epidemic and a lack of snow in an area linked with skiing.

Next week the Cairngorms National Park tentatively opens before the official ceremony in September and, according to Sally Dowden and many like her, the new status will attract the domestic and international attention the area has longed for for many years.

"The local community can use this opportunity to put our area on the map for international recognition," says Dowden, who with partner Ian Rowlands, has built up Speyside Wildlife Holidays over 12 years, offering birdwatching holidays to "twitchers" who flock from all over the world to enjoy some of the best sites in the UK.

"We moved here ... because it is a premier bird watching area," she says. "The original decision was easy and we were made to feel welcome. Although our bank thought we were mad, weíve invested in the businesses and kept going."

From bird watching to making movies, golfing to whisky, skiing to call centres, B&S may be about to undergo its own heather-coated renaissance.

After years of planning and frequently broken promises of new developments and investment, the dream is gradually becoming a reality. The redevelopment of Aviemore and the National Park status especially have given the area a confidence boost.

Aviemore Centre - now famed for cracked concrete, cheap hotels and ladsí weekends of heavy drinking - opened in 1966 and quickly became the jewel in Scotlandís tourist crown. Once the "in" place with Scots skiiers, it lost out to package deals abroad and has struggled to stay alive.

Reaching the short-list as one of Scotlandís worst civic disasters in a recent magazine poll was never going to be Aviemoreís crowning glory, but the regeneration and developments projects, following years of false starts, surveys, local inquiries and community conflicts, will be key to transforming the area.

A consortium led by Macdonald Hotels, construction firm Tulloch and Bank of Scotland is developing Aviemore Highland Resort, which is expected to create more than 200 jobs. Sean Sullivan, managing director of AHR, says:

"There is a big difference from previous false starts because this time itís a signed deal and the ink is dry. We are very far down the line and construction work is imminent."

Macdonald Hotels also plans to invest £5 million in its nearby Dalfaber resort, creating a luxury, 100-room, four-star hotel with an 18-hole championship golf course on the banks of the River Spey. The resort will include a swimming pool, health spa and beauty complex, conference, exhibition and cinema facilities capable of providing banquet seating for 1,000 people, 50,000sqft for "upmarket retail outlets" and allowance will also be made for a community ice rink and centre.

Hamish Swan,

a former chairman of Tennent Caledonian and of Holiday Inns and now chairman of Cairngorm Chamber of Commerce, says the new Aviemore plans are vital to the areaís overall economy, coupled with the recently-opened funicular railway, which has replaced the ageing ski-lifts on Cairn Gorm.

He was initially worried about the quality of the Aviemore project, but is now confident that it will be a credit to the Cairngorms National Park. "The local business community are all very positive, not just for Aviemore, but for the whole of Badenoch and Strathspey. With the funicular railway and the national park, this is the final piece in the jigsaw."

The £15 million funicular railway is a tourist attraction of international standard. Once the subject of much debate and in danger of being abandoned, it now carries more than 250,000 skiers and summer visitors a year into the heart of one of the most beautiful, but fragile mountain environments.

"We succeeded in building the railway amid some protracted opposition but, as soon as it was commissioned, we saw that as being in the past," says Swan. "We have sought to move forward and the only way this could be achieved was by creating a quality experience for every visitor who came to see us.

"All of us are immensely proud of what we have already achieved and the impact that CairnGorm Mountain [which runs the railway] has made on the local economy," he says.

Swan adds: "Our uniqueness is one that any other area of the world would fight tooth and nail for: the beauty, importance and diversity of our world-class environment - both natural, cultural and built - and in an accessible location.

"We are the home of a famous traditional dance, the Strathspey; of a unique national sport, shinty; of a famous salmon river and a way of fishing it, Spey casting; of whisky and of many foods that are associated with quality, from Aberdeen Angus Beef to shortbread to salmon. What other area has all these icons of quality?"

One of the most obvious "collective" projects of recent years that might also sum up the overall B&S "sell" is the BBCís hit series Monarch of the Glen.

Produced by Ecosse Films, makers of the much-acclaimed Mrs Brown, the series was filmed at sites across the area - Laggan, Newtonmore, Kingussie, Kincraig, Carrbridge, Rothiemurchus and Nethy Bridge.

A fifth series will be made this year and Patricia Eccles, co-chairwoman of the Monarch Initiative, says it has proved an invaluable marketing tool. "The show has put us on the map. Other areas have been spoilt by the success of a programme, but we want to use it to show the variety of whatís here.

"Everyone has heard of Aviemore for skiing, but there are mountains and valleys and rivers and you can have the four seasons in one day. We have landscape like Sussex and like the moon. Thatís what weíre trying to cash in on."

She adds: "When they started filming Monarch three years ago, Ecosse films said they would help if we wanted to cash in on the seriesí success. Now the Monarch effect has really kicked in and itís worth an estimated £2 million a year to local businesses."

Eccles, who runs Nethy House in Nethy Bridge and was a former chair of the Cairngorms Chamber, adds: "The landscape is one of the biggest stars of the show and we knew there was huge potential in using the programme to market the area.

"We needed to tempt new visitors to the area and encourage existing ones to spend more of their time here and we created a product and an experience called Monarch Country."

She adds that forging this alliance in the local community has helped to strengthen the business community.

Leaf through the local tourism brochures and there are an abundance of attractions. As well as numerous distillery visitor centres, for example at Dalwhinnie, thereís the Waltzing Waters light and water show in Newtonmore, the Highland Folk Park and Museum in Newtonmore and Kingussie, and the Highland Wildlife Park in Kincraig.

But the one tourist attraction that is likely to benefit the most from the arrival of national park status is the stunning 25,000-acre Rothiemurchus Estate, at the heart of the Cairngorms.

It may have recently been named one of the 100 most amazing places in Britain and Ireland, but business at Rothiemurchus has been tough in recent years. The estate has diversified and now offers corporate events, organised tours and shops selling its own wild venison, Highland beef and rainbow trout, craftwork, gifts and a range of fishing tackle to survive, as it is free to visit but receives some public cash.

But itís been a massive task making it all pay, as Phillipa Grant, the lairdís wife, will testify: "The National Park gives us the opportunity to differentiate ourselves from international competition so that we can build a business on quality not just quantity.

"Itís been an enormous struggle for everyone who works on the estate. To make Rothiemurchus work, we need an enormous commitment from everyone who works here and the public agencies who we work closely with. The national park will recognise the challenges we face and be part of finding the solution."

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 Park boundaries flawed, say climbers

JOHN ROSS

Years of conflict and ineffective management lie ahead for the Cairngorms National Park unless the Scottish Executive changes controversial boundary and planning proposals, it has been claimed.

The warning comes from the Mountaineering Council of Scotland in a letter to Jack McConnell, the First Minister and puts further pressure on the Executive to change its plans on the park which is due to open in March.

The MCofS, which represents over 8,000 members, is the latest in a series of organisations to say the proposed park boundary is seriously flawed and has been drawn up for political rather than natural heritage reasons.

It has been claimed previously that the proposed boundary was only introduced as a result of pressure from Highland Labour MSPs who wanted to ensure Highland Council was given a greater say on the park board.

John Mackenzie, the MCofS vice-president, said: "The Executive is walking into a disaster with its eyes closed.

"It is clear to anyone who so much as glances at this issue that the south-western boundary has been drawn to fit an artificial local authority border."

Mike Dales, MCofS access and conservation officer, added: "This is the worst example of blatant gerrymandering I have ever seen.

"Communities in Highland Perthshire, such as Blair Atholl and Calvine, which form the kicking off point for many who will walk or cycle into the National Park, are being denied the resources to manage the associated impacts.

"This is not because the area is scenically less attractive or that it attracts fewer visitors, but because MSPs from some Highland constituencies are more concerned that Highland region councillors receive five, rather than four, places on the park board."

The MCofS is also concerned about the proposed planning powers for the national park - due to be split between the park board and local authorities - which it says are unworkable.

The Cairngorms park will be the biggest in Britain. Originally, Scottish Natural Heritage recommended it cover 4,600sq km (1,775sq miles) and be spread over five local authority areas - Highland, Aberdeenshire, Moray, Perth and Kinross and Angus.

In May, the Executive issued draft proposals which almost halved the size to 2,460sq km (950sq miles) in Highland, Aberdeenshire and Moray. But last month it decided it would cover 3,800sq km (1,466sq miles) and re-instated areas within Angus Council and parts of Laggan.

It is proposed the park authority will have 25 members - five to be directly elected and ten appointed by the Executive. The other ten will be local authority nominees - five from Highland, three from Aberdeenshire and one each from Moray and Angus.

In the letter, Mr Mackenzie says the proposed southern boundary runs through the heart of the mountain massif and through the middle of a loch.

He said landowners, communities, environmental and recreational bodies and politicians have all opposed the proposal.

"The only supporting voice, Rhoda Grant (a Highlands and Islands MSP), explained that her main reason for supporting it was that it made Dalwhinnie the southern gateway for the park at the expense of Perthshire communities further south on the A9.

"It may be understandable that she would say this in the interest of her political constituency, but it is hardly the most objective criteria for establishing the most appropriate park boundaries in the national interest."

Rhoda Grant dismissed the claims: "I did not argue against Perth and Kinross being in the park.

"But once Dalwhinnie and Laggan have been included, giving a much-needed focus as a gateway to the park, I could not argue against that happening. The Executive has increased the size of the park by 50 per cent and gone a long way to meet what people requested."

She also rejected claims that MSPs moved to give Highland Council a greater say on the park board.

"That is absolute rubbish. There would be no political reason for us to back Highland Council, I am representing the views of my constituents." Perth and Kinross Council is considering seeking a judicial review of the boundary which was also attacked this week by the North East Mountain Trust.

Earlier this month Robin Pellew, chief executive of the National Trust for Scotland, also criticised the boundary and said proposals to share planning powers would be cumbersome and a recipe for tension.

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