How Scotland Became a Global Leader in Sustainable Tourism

by | 1 Apr 2024

What I love about Scotland is that it’s easy to get off the beaten track and have truly unforgettable experiences

When you think of Scotland, what do you picture? Timeless landscapes dressed in tartan tones of heather pink, pine green and tarn blue? Ancient castles and even older stories? Cities that feel like museums come to life?

Hilly landscape in Scotland, covered in pink heather

Scotland is, of course, all this – and much more. Home to neolithic sites such as Skara Brae, which pre-dates the Egyptian Pyramids and Stonehenge, fascinating history flows as readily as the crystalline water from its highland springs.

But it is also a country that, as much as it will always have one foot in the past, has its eyes firmly set on the future. Its rise as a global leader in responsible tourism and sustainability is arguably the most compelling evidence of this.

Photo of a lone wind turbine pictured beyond the horizon of a field of green crops, against a blue sky

To find out more about how it has established itself as a global influence in this field, what its ambitions are for the future, and what you can expect from your visit, we spoke with Responsible Tourism expert Lyn Donnelly from VisitScotland.

Lyn is also this week’s Insightful Destination Expert, and inspired our 5 Travel Trivia questions. Read the article for clues, then play the game here.

Hi Lyn, could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your role?

“My name is Lyn Donnelly, and I’m the Senior Responsible Tourism Manager at VisitScotland.

Photo of Lyn standing against the Calanais Standing Stones, at sunset against a blue sky

“My role is really driving our responsible tourism strategy across the organisation of VisitScotland. This effectively means ensuring that everything that we do as an organisation is viewed through the lens of responsible travel, and going towards making Scotland a world-leading sustainable destination.

“We’ve had a dedicated responsible tourism team for the last four years  – a small team, but all experts within their fields. Our team members have a specific focus on net zero, inclusive tourism, Gaelic and communities.

“But this is very much the new business-as-usual at VisitScotland, so everyone within the organization has an aspect of Responsible Tourism as part of their role, and know they need to make it part of their daily tasks.

“I also work closely with Scottish tourism businesses, offering a range of support including their net zero journey, developing climate action plans and accessibility offering.”

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And what would you say is the unifying vision for the organization?

“For us, it’s really about aligning with our ambitious climate change targets in Scotland. The Scottish Government has set out a target of net zero by 2045, which is 5 years ahead of the rest of the UK.

“We want to help make Scotland a world leader in 21st century tourism. To me, that’s really about making Scotland a standout destination for being one of the most environmentally, economically and socially sustainable countries in the world.”

You’ve mentioned Responsible Tourism a few times. Can you explain what this is?

“Our approach to responsible tourism is holistic – it’s about making better places for people to live and visit and tourism being a force for good. Protecting our natural and built environment is hugely important as they’re vital for our brand and part of what makes Scotland such a special place. Communities are also central to this, as we need to make sure the balance is right, so everyone feels the benefits of tourism.

“VisitScotland’s Responsible Tourism Strategy is made up of four pillars. The first is about supporting the tourism sector transition to a low carbon economy – helping businesses create climate action plans and being part of the solution to tackle the climate emergency.

Bagpiper playing the bagpipes near Edinburgh castle

“The second pillar is about ensuring tourism and events are inclusive and accessible to all, and everyone who visits gets that warm welcome to Scotland. The third is around ensuring that we’re supporting thriving communities, engaging with communities and ensuring the  right tourism in the right areas.

“And the fourth is around protecting our natural and cultural heritage – protecting our gorgeous landscapes, scenery, our delicious food and drink and traditional music. Everything that makes Scotland so unique.”

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Why is this so important to Scotland’s future?

“I would say the answer to this is in two parts. Firstly, one of the things we always hear from visitors is that they’ve come to appreciate our gorgeous scenery. They want to be outdoors, experiencing the mountains, lochs and islands that make Scotland so beautiful. As a national tourism organization, we have a duty of care to protect those areas, so they’re around for future generations to enjoy.

A man and a child holding hands walking along a muddy path towards a ruined castle

“The second part is – being very honest – that, as an industry, we can’t carry on as we have been. We’re all-too aware that travel and tourism contribute to climate emissions. But with that, we know we also have a real opportunity to be part of the solution. And I think that’s why I’m so excited about Visit Scotland’s partnership with TTC in particular.”

Meet Insight Vacations’ Chief Sustainability Officer, Sharon Guihan

Can you tell us a bit more about this partnership?

“As you know, we’ve launched a partnership this year, with the goal of creating low carbon and responsible itineraries for TTC tour brands, including Insight Vacations. We’ll work together to create sustainable and uniquely Scottish MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experiences such as visiting the Dundreggan Rewilding Centre, which aims to conserve local flora and fauna.

“This creates a really exciting opportunity for Scottish travel businesses to innovate, and gives them an added incentive to align with our responsible tourism strategy, as a company like TTC have a global reach.

close up of a red squirrel, standing against a tree trunk


What are you most proud of in your work at VisitScotland?

“The achievement I’m most proud of isn’t mine personally – it’s that Scotland was the first destination to join Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency. This is a coalition of travel businesses (such as TTC) and tourism boards who have come together to recognize that the travel industry has a huge responsibility to mitigate the impact of climate change, and be a force for good.

Girl holding up a cardboard sign that reads "fighting for our future"

“When we decided to do it as a destination, it wasn’t done lightly  – we recognized it was a big commitment, and our actions would need to follow. But it was the kick-off point that then led to COP 26 and the Glasgow Declaration, which if you’re not aware, was set up for destinations to help with climate action.

“What’s also really important to clarify is that while we’ve made great progress as a destination towards our targets, we don’t have all the answers. We’re on a journey, and that’s why it’s so crucial we come together with other like-minded businesses and organizations on this topic – so that we can learn from each other.”


As a Scotland expert and resident, what advice or recommendations do you have for visitors?

“In terms of advice, I would say think about the time of year you want to visit. Of course there’s the Edinburgh Festivals in the summer, which is great, but Scotland has incredible experiences you can take part in all year round. The Highlands  look especially gorgeous in the autumn, when mist rolls down the glens. In the winter, we can get a lot of snow, which is beautiful. And it’s when our cities come into their own, as warm, welcoming hubs of human activity. A visit to a whisky distillery in the winter is a must. Spring is fantastic in the South of Scotland, and when the countryside is at its prettiest. So there really is something here for every season.

Photo of a building covered in snow in the Scottish Highlands

“And of recommendations? What I love about Scotland is that it’s a destination where you can really switch off, take your time and just enjoy the journey. It’s easy to get off the beaten track and have truly unforgettable experiences. Where I live, over in the east of Scotland, we’re surrounded by gorgeous beaches and I have fallen in love with living by the seaside. Over the summer months, there is a real holiday vibe at my local Portobello Beach with an increase in paddle-boarders and volleyball players.

Deserted Scottish beach

“I have fond memories of the Isle of Arran and have visited the island every year since I was six months old. I’ve loved watching the island develop with new tourism experiences. A family trait – that we’re ridiculously early for everything – means that often our car is at the front of the queue for the CalMac ferry. The view of Goatfell when you come into Arran on the ferry is one of my favourite vistas in Scotland.

“Another favourite holiday destination is the Outer Hebrides. I love the changing landscapes between Lewis and Harris, the white sandy beaches, incredible scenery and, of course, the Harris Gin. There is also a new fabulous Hebridean spa! It’s become a favourite holiday destination for myself and  friends.”

Curious about traveling to Scotland? Discover our small-group premium tours to Scotland here

I'm Alex, Editor of Insightful. I have over 10 years' experience as a travel writer and editor, and have been lucky enough to visit some incredible destinations in that time. Canada, Italy and Iceland are (so far) my favorite places on Earth, but at the top of my wish list for future adventures is India. I'm fascinated by indigenous cultures and traditions, have a hearty appetite for history (but a poor memory for dates), and feel most at home in wild, unpopulated landscapes.