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Glentrool and the Cree Valley ‘Biosphere Experience’ (Galloway and Southern Ayrshire)

Galloway and Southern Ayrshire ‘Biosphere Experiences’.

The South West of Scotland has often been overlooked as a tourism destination, with many visitors heading to the more widely marketed and promoted ‘Highlands and Islands’ of Scotland. However, the South West of Scotland which was designated as a UNESCO Biosphere in 2012, has a rich natural and cultural heritage in its own right. Being less well known its roads, its hills, its beaches are all quieter but the quality of authentic experiences that can be enjoyed are all there if only people knew where to go and what to see. The Biosphere Experiences initiative intends to celebrate and promote what’s distinctly special about our region, and to build on the UNESCO Biosphere designation to support the development of new eco-tourism and sustainable opportunities that will make the region more accessible to visitors.

Our initiative is focused on the Glentrool and Cree Valley area of the Biosphere. Glentrool is the only village located in the buffer of our UNESCO Biosphere and located in the Galloway Forest Park which is a gold standard International Dark Skies Association designated Dark Sky Park. The area has a history of hill farming and over time land use has changed to forestry. Glentrool village was purpose built to provide homes for forest workers but due to less labour-intensive forestry methods the original forest workers and their families no longer remain. The remaining community in the village of Glentrool either work in outside the area, in home businesses or are retired. They are looking to create a new future and story for their village with a desire and plans to increase tourism and visitors to the village and surrounding area through the work of its Development Trust and the development of its old primary school.

Some guiding experiences are currently taking place, but the opportunity exists to further develop this around nature-based tourism and building on the heritage and culture and the story of the changing land-use over time. Our initiative will be exploring Nature Based Tourism and experiential opportunities for wildlife watching; the opportunities to develop stories and experiences connected to the land ‘Our Home – Our Heritage and Biosphere Experiences in the Dark Sky Park to include star gazing, night walks, picnics, night cycling, swimming and dark story telling.

Our intention is to add value to existing opportunities such as partnering and packaging up local guides with accommodation providers and local food opportunities as well as developing new ‘Biosphere Experiences’ through either expanding the remit of existing guides and training new people to take on the guiding role and develop understanding on how to build a business on the outdoors

Stakeholder Engagement – First steps in shaping ‘Biosphere Experiences’

Our stakeholder meeting brought together a cross section of stakeholders, both individuals and organisation with an interest in the Glentrool and Cree Valley area and tourism development.  As an initial step in the process participants contributed to mapping tangible and intangible assets. From this emerged the wealth of assets cultural, natural, history, heritage, local stories people’s passion for the place along with resources in terms of expertise available through a variety of organisations. Discussions on the challenges of partnership working and the opportunities for collaborations followed and initial ideas began to emerge on how those assets could be shaped into a new tourism offer. To give a chance for reflection a follow-up questionnaire was distributed to participants asking how they would like to continue to be engaged in the SHAPE project and most interesting and promising opportunities for Eco-Tourism development they felt came out from the discussions.

‘KETSO’ activity to further explore and consolidate ideas

Newton Stewart Museum. – Discovery of ‘Lang’ slide collection

The engagement with stakeholders continued through further group meetings using a variety of methodologies to shape those ideas into eco-tourism products that could be developed.  Visits to stakeholder organisations to understand some of the assets identified  and further development of existing assets and activities took place  From these group meetings and individual meetings with stakeholders’ possibilities were explored which emerged into the development of ‘Biosphere Experiences’. Opportunities for the visitor and tourist to experience the ‘Biosphere’ in a sustainable way, both  guided and unguided through either expanding the remit of existing guides or training new people to take on the guiding role.

  • Dark Skies and Darkness Tourism Experiences
  • Nature Based Tourism Experiences
  • Our Home Our Heritage – Authentic Cultural Experiences – Bringing together past with present
  • Sustainable travel experiences

Biosphere Experiences Guide Training

As the development of ‘Biosphere Experiences’ progressed it highlighted the potential opportunity for more ‘local guides’ in the region, guides who can connect visitors to the unique natural and cultural offering which had been identified through the SHAPE asset mapping process. A local guide could lead individual and group activities whilst providing an enriched local interpretation. The current number of guides within the Biosphere was limited. Market research shows that today’s visitors are looking for ‘authentic experiences’ that engage them with local people, customs and places, often wanting to get off the beaten track and explore new areas. This growing market could offer the potential to create new opportunities and also for us to use the international UNESCO Biosphere brand to attract new visitors to our region by offering them new sustainable experiences.

The Course

After a tender process Stef Lauer of Hands on Consulting was commissioned to develop and deliver a Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere Guide Training Program for up to 10 participants.

Stef has been involved in various aspects of guiding for over 15 years, including a spell as Head of Operations for 5* adventure travel company Wilderness Scotland where she was involved in the development of their Wilderness Guide Training Programme. She is a trained Leave no Trace practitioner which was an important aspect to support the sustainability and environmental ethos of the Biosphere. With personal experience of setting up a guiding business, running events and engaging with the public she was well positioned to be able share her knowledge and expertise to train new entrants to this growing market.

The course covers

  • How to provide a safe welcoming experience
  • How to share information confidently and in an engaging way
  • The Art of story telling
  • Use of different modes of transport foot, bike, bus
  • What makes a good tour?
  • Permissions, Regulations & Insurance requirements
  • Leave No Trace
  • Basic Business Start-up considerations for a new self-employed guide

The course was aimed at people already passionate about their local area with an interest in local culture, the outdoors, the arts, wildlife, heritage and history, dark skies, local produce and stories or legends. The intention was to equip participants with the skills to share their knowledge with others and to set up new guiding businesses. The course was 5 full days and free to participants and limited to 10 people, so applicants had to live within the Biosphere and tell us why they wanted to apply and their interests. Younger people within the Biosphere was a target age group for some of the places on the course, seeing the guiding as a business opportunity but disappointingly, we could not find anyone under 30 to participate.

Participant Experience

After the 5 day training over the 2 weekends each participant planned and led a practical interpretation session to their peers around Glentrool and the Cree Valley on a chosen topic, incorporating their learning from the course and the Leave No Trace Eco-Training, bringing in their own personal experience and passion for the guiding area they were interested in with lots of peer to peer support taking place over the weekends.  A follow up session at the request of participants on marketing and social media was arranged and delivered by Visit Scotland. This was to help the guides develop the diverse and unique businesses and experiences they were to deliver and the value of social media in doing this. The group continue to support each other and work together.

I always felt there was scope for a small tour guiding business, but had no idea how to go about it, what the expectations of clients would be and how to do it with as little environmental impact as possible. The GSA Biosphere tour guide course has provided me with that information, and more, and I’m only halfway through it at the moment. It’s provided a way into local networks, huge amounts of information on the local area, support via becoming a “Biosphere Proud Supporter” and eventually work to the Biosphere Certification Mark. I can see a bright future for the company I’m in the process of setting up” …Craig Murray (now set up South West Scotland Tours)

Climate Change and Creation of a Sustainable ‘Experience’

While developing our eco-tourism initiative we wanted to build not only on the special qualities of the Biosphere which the status recognises but create an initiative that champions sustainable development supporting the goals of the Biosphere.

Glentrool the location chosen within our SHA and the focus of the initiative is a Biosphere Community. Biosphere Communities are places where local residents and businesses have committed to being Proud Supporters of the Biosphere by agreeing to:

  • Help to conserve the natural resources of the Biosphere
  • Support the economy to benefit local people and nature
  • Promote cultural heritage and local products
  • Contribute to the health and well-being of the community

Biosphere Communities as a destination in their own right can communicate their sustainable credentials to engage tourists and to attract new customer groups by the fact they are aligned with the sustainable principles of the Biosphere. Focusing our initiative on a small geographic location was an effective way to reduce carbon foot-print by encouraging the visitor to stay longer and travel less in one location also helped to increase length or stay and support the local economy.

The businesses collaborating in ‘Biosphere Experiences’ are also Proud Supporters of the Biosphere with some of the businesses having received the Biosphere Certification Mark, demonstrating strong sustainable and environmental credentials.

Given current societal trends markets for environmentally oriented tourists are already emerging there are opportunities to develop and market new low-carbon tourism products. Train and coach are more energy-efficient than transport by aircraft or car and we wanted to explore the possibilities of sustainable travel including cycling.

What is Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere?

Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere is in South West Scotland and covers 5,268 square kilometres and is home to 95,000 people. Our UNESCO Biosphere boundary embraces a diverse countryside of lowland and upland farms and forests. Centred on the Galloway Hills, the rivers radiating out provide water as a common theme connecting the cultural identity and natural environment with everyone living and working in the area. The Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere has been recognised for its special natural qualities but also acknowledges the challenges rural communities now face.

Managed by a Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere Partnership which was established following the designation of the Biosphere by UNESCO in 2012. The Biosphere status does not affect other existing designations but creates a forum for cooperation, discussion and innovation. Comprising of representation from the public, private, community and third sector, the Partnership aims to promote a more sustainable and balanced use of natural, cultural and social assets for the benefit of local communities and businesses.

Our simple, yet powerful, vision for South West Scotland is to make life in the Biosphere better for people and nature. Cherishing our landscapes, nature and heritage through improved stewardship creates a sure foundation for long term sustainable development, improved prosperity, wellbeing and pride.