Balancing outdoor tourism and recreation development and environmental conservation after major infrastructure improvements
: dualling the A9 through Cairngorms National Park.

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (awarded by UHI)


This thesis explores the changes of visitor patterns resulting from a major infrastructure
development in Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park (CNP), and in turn, the potential impacts
on sensitive conservation areas. The A9, Scotland’s longest road and transport corridor
between the Central Belt and the Highlands, is currently being dualled between Perth and
Inverness. To investigate the possible changes in visitor patterns between resulting from this
major road development, and the implications for protecting sensitive sites from visitor
disturbances, this study adopted a sequential mixed-methods approach based on two case
study areas, including questionnaire surveys, an adopted Delphi technique, and by analysing
user-created geographic information (UGI) from social media and GPS-tracking platforms.
Involving the perspectives of visitors in the National Park, outdoor tourism businesses, and
experts, and comparing these to UGI allowed the exploration of changes from different angles.
With the help of UGI, spatiotemporal overlaps between outdoor activities and two grouse
species (capercaillie and black grouse) could be identified. Based on this, this study assessed
how possible changes in visitor patterns could potentially threaten disturbance-free areas in
the future. Although the A9 dualling may not influence visitor distribution directly, the expected
increase in the number and diversity of visitors and outdoor activities will affect the recreational
capacity of both areas during popular visitation times. Crowding around current visitor hotspots
may displace visitors and residents who seek solitude and ‘wildness’. However, crowding is
unlikely to affect visitors who arrive with a pre-determined schedule.
The Covid-19 has fuelled outdoor tourism and recreation and led to substantial increases in
visitor patterns and diversity in the two case study areas, and may therefore provide a useful
indication of future visitor patterns. The patterns between pre-Covid-19 were compared with
summer 2020 and summer 2021 using UGI and expert opinions. The study concludes that
crowding will be likely during busy visitation times, and that this will displace certain visitor
groups. This in turn may lead to increased use patterns in previously quiet areas. The
implications for wildlife species, particularly the two grouse species are discussed.
These include an increase in functional habitat fragmentation, modification, and loss, and
greater wildlife disturbance. However, the increase in visitors also provides opportunities to
(re)connect a higher number of people with nature, which in turn, could lead to increased
support for conservation. The A9 dualling also involves the construction of additional active
travel corridors, which could help to reduce the number of cars, decrease pressure on existing
routes, and direct visitors to underused areas.
With the aim of minimising threats and maximising opportunities of increased visitor numbers
and types, necessary site management, and on-site and off-site visitor management actions
were discussed. More rangers in and around sensitive sites, improved ‘pre-visit’ information,
and multi-channel communication were regarded to be of highest importance in both areas. In
AL, investment in infrastructure was considered second most important, as visitor numbers
will likely exceed the capacity the current infrastructure can handle. To protect sensitive sites
from increased disturbance in BS, it was suggested to enhance screening and create natural
barriers with the help of habitat improvements.
Comparing the two case study areas revealed both similar and different potential changes in
visitor patterns, and therefore similarities and differences in possible threats and opportunities,
and management priorities. The different methods also revealed some discrepancies in
findings. This shows that visitor management actions should be assessed on a local scale
based on multiple sources of information, in order to identify appropriate and efficient actions
to protect sensitive sites from increased disturbance.
Date of Award3 Jan 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of the Highlands and Islands
SponsorsESF studentship
SupervisorMartin Francis Price (Supervisor), Rosalind Bryce (Supervisor) & Euan Bowditch (Supervisor)

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