MSP OPINION: Mountain says big changes needed at Cairngorm resort
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As a newly qualified surveyor in the late 1990s, I watched with interest as the Cairngorm funicular railway progressed, from concept to construction.
It wasn’t a smooth ride and sadly during the last 19 years it hasn’t become any smoother.
Thankfully the mountain has proved to be more stable than the structures that have been built on it. What is very clear is that we cannot keep repeating what has been done before, because we know it doesn’t work.
There are three critical areas we need to focus our attention; the management structure, the offering to visitors and the long-term financial security of the enterprise.
The people of Scotland own Cairngorm Mountain and as owners we must be concerned, not just because the last two management structures failed but because in doing so they have cost us a huge amount of money, damaged the local economy and as a result it has been detrimental to other tourist based businesses.
Whatever comes next must be more responsive and representative of local knowledge and needs.
This will not be achieved by one public body acting as landowner, landlord, agent and also owner of the operating company as is currently the situation. What we need is a clear division of responsibility that allows for accountability and scrutiny.
The closure of the funicular and the on-going dispute with the previous operator proves just how bad things had become. I believe that there is merit in splitting the functions that are all currently in the hands of HIE.
I believe that the Scottish Government should look at creating a specific agency (or holding company) to oversee the management of the many assets we now own.
This holding company would take the political imperative out of decisions, not only on Cairngorm Mountain but also at other state-owned assets such as; Prestwick Airport and perhaps even Ferguson’s shipyard.
Below this should be a more local board consisting of; a representative of the holding company, appointed professionals (accountants, agents), local businesses, local politicians, local community representatives and representatives of users and workers.
Turning then to the issue of who should actually run the resort, the answer is simple; those that have the skills to do so. As we search for the new operator, we will also need to be realistic.
There is no point in kidding ourselves that the mountain will be self-financing, it won’t be until we right the wrongs of our previous failures.
We need to accept that the Mountain will need financial help to get back on track, especially when it comes the funicular.
The search must start now and we need to find a partner with a long-term vision rather than seeking a quick financial return.
If Cairngorm Mountain is to be a success, we need to accept the current facilities don’t meet the basic needs of those that visit.
Are we giving visitors the best first impression with a crumbling and tired car park, basic brutal buildings and then a funicular railway which, when it does work, doesn’t offer enough lift capacity?
All these negatives override the positively warm professional welcome and service that the staff offer. It is these basic facilities that need our attention.
Tinkering around the edges with zip lines and tube runs might amuse the younger visitors but significant other infrastructure changes need to be made to encourage visitors to return.
It is also a pity that the latest plan to repair the funicular, at a cost of more than £16m, did not look at increasing lift capacity and a better offering when you get to the top of the mountain.
We should be concentrating on this and we can make a good start by moving the snow making machinery, which was an expensive investment, further up the mountain.
Not to do so commits us to pushing snow uphill, which is not something any sensible person would do. I fear that unless we are more sensible in developing what we have, concentrating on the core offering, our well-intended actions will be doomed to failure.
As part of this we also need to identify ways of making the mountain a year-round facility.
Should we reconsider lifting the blanket ban on pedestrian access from the top station to a more controlled, supervised, and self-sustaining attraction, thus enticing more paying visitors?
The Cairngorms National Park Authority has always told me they are open to discussions on all the issues and I welcome this.
The problem with the funicular should have bottomed out all these issues, but it is clear that it hasn’t.
If the failure of two successive operators and the need for substantial Government bailouts has proved anything, surely it is that what we now have on the mountain is not a viable business.
There is nothing wrong with admitting this, indeed not to do so is delusional and will prevent us from finding a viable solution.
The Government is quick to spend on certain infrastructure projects and this must be one of the more deserving ones.
The fragile Highland economy means every highland job created is worth a multiple of jobs in less fragile areas. We also know that every tourist that comes to the Highlands brings money to spend in local shops, restaurants, pubs and hotels.
No one can ignore that investment and the jobs that it brings. We need more jobs and that is what visitors bring.
So, whilst I welcome the money for the funicular railway repairs we need greater investment in the existing fabric and facilities and we need to increase what we offer to all visitors to the mountain.
Going forward is so important, but going forward together is even more important.
We must never forget we have the most fabulous resource, Cairngorm Mountain, and we have a great team to run this.
But what we lack is a shared vision that it properly funded. Now I welcome the open and constructive engagement that I have had with HIE and CNPA, they haven’t always been easy or consensual discussions, but they have demonstrated that we all share a passion.
A passion shared by every resident and business in Badenoch and Strathspey.
All I ask for is that our passion is met by the commitment of sufficient funds by the Scottish Government to ensure that when the funicular does open, the rest of the infrastructure on the mountain is fit for purpose and that what is offered makes Cairngorm Mountain a year round attraction.
* Edward Mountain is Highlands regional MSP (Scottish Conservatives) and Convener of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee of the Scottish Parliament.