By Nicola Miller 

In the 21st century, the world is getting smaller. With access to affordable international travel, and social media allowing us to connect and engage with the furthest most remote locations, our appetite for travel shows no signs of slowing.
The era of the traditional package holiday, does however, seem to be losing favour over more bespoke holidays where the consumer takes more control. The internet allows consumers to research and create their own destination breaks, planning their own travel, accommodation and activities. With this, there is an upward trend for adventure holidays and an appetite to take our holidays off the beaten track in search of something different and ‘unspoilt’.
This brings with it an opportunity for rural tourism to thrive, but at what cost?
There is much recorded about the possible negative impact of tourism in rural communities. Increased footfall to an area brings the potential for problems and a detrimental impact on the community. 
Whether it is increased traffic affecting the lives of the local-residents, new buildings springing up to service demand or the grass roots ecological impact, without careful management and regard even the smallest enterprise can have a lasting impact.  
The balance is a fine one, and the dichotomy between achieving the ‘unspoilt’ experience, without it’s very presence ‘spoiling it’, is a challenging one.  
This can be seen in top destinations like Ben Nevis Summit where seemingly harmless banana skins are causing a problem. In this climate, it can take two years for skins to biodegrade; in the meantime they lay as discarded litter. This is more than a visual detraction from this stunning landscape, it has a potential to have a lasting impact. 
Minerals leached from the skins are thought to change the composition of the soil and affect the survival of native plants. Their presence is also considered to be affecting birdlife with an increase of scavenger birds which threatens to displace mountain species that had previously owned these skies. 
Just the mere increase in volume of walkers can scar a remote landscape. Popular climbs can see the appearance of broad, rutted tracks which further erode in the wind and through seasonal freeze and thaw. 
Footpaths in the west of Scotland become increasing worn away where walkers spread outwards to avoid the mud and ‘keep their feet dry’, expanding their impact across the landscape and natural habitats.
All too often ventures start out small with low impact, but with increasing demand and growth, the model is up scaled without top down strategic level planning for the long-term potential impact of the venture. This is when sustainability issues rear their heads.
What is clear is that the demand for rural tourism will not fade any time soon, and, of course, there are positive advantages for communities too. There is the fiscal benefit it brings to small communities. 
The need for shops, accommodation and facilities brings with it an increase in local jobs and work for existing businesses. New money to an area can bring regeneration and rural improvements allowing investment in protection and enhancement of biodiversity and community heritage.
What we need is to find the middle ground and ensure that even the smallest enterprise is built on principles that ensure sustainable operation and growth. Regard for environmental and community impact can, with passion and a commitment to the end goal, be seamlessly integrated with high quality leisure and tourism bringing benefits to all.
In the West Coast of Scotland, Wilder Ways are a small business with a simple mission: “Leave no trace but a few hoofprints and take with you nothing but memories and photographs”.
The Wilder Ways business model is backed by a combined 35 years experience in ecological protection. Founders Cara Gelati and Nikki Dayton have spent their professional careers protecting the natural world and its flora and fauna. They have worked for preservation big hitters including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Scottish National Heritage and across numerous national parks and trusts, gaining a breadth and depth of experience in both the environmental and financial implications of progress and development. 
“During my life as a consultant ecologist, I’ve been heavily involved with both assessing threats to protected natural habitats and species and in identifying and planning positive management to enhance habitat condition and biodiversity and this work is at the heart of the Wilder Ways business model,” says Nikki.
Wilder Ways offer bespoke horse riding adventures across some of the most stunning and unspoilt landscapes the West Coast has to offer and they take their role as protectionists extremely seriously. Their programmes run across various locations and each expedition is tested against the following criteria
a) maintain a low impact and minimise damage 
b) cause no disturbance to habitats and species 
c) collaborate with and maintain good relations with landowners/local enterprise 
d) foster a sense of caring for the environment within our service users creating an onward legacy
“It’s a matter of making some very simple, yet key decisions about your business and setting a clear non-negotiable vision around which the business grows,” adds Cara.
Each expedition group size is limited in number, and by employing simple management techniques such as alternating locations and routes they can responsibly step off the beaten track without any detrimental impact to footpaths and bridleways. By building strong working relationships with land owners they are able to work together and put in place investment for path maintenance, where appropriate, to ensure long-term sustainability.  
Theirs is a collaborative approach and a model based on local networks. Working with local restauranteurs and hoteliers allows them to build their breaks and provide a one-stop point of contact, while still offering the all-important consumer choice. Using their rural network model means they can utilise existing local businesses to create bespoke packages to suit any appetite. Whether it’s a night under the stars camping out in a bell-tent, a family run bed and breakfast or a luxury spa break, it can all be sourced in-area. 
The ethos of this business runs deep and through all aspects of their planning. Food for meals is sourced locally, or hand-picked from the Wilder Ways small holding, where they also produce home spun wool from their own Shetland Sheep, and even hand-made soap. 
Perhaps the biggest benefit of this approach to tourism is the long-term legacy. Passion like this is infectious and when the vision is at the core of the business’ activity and not just a token nod, it is easy to bring others along on the journey too. The hope is that with strong rural tourism leading the way in sustainable enterprise, each and every ‘rural explorer’ leaves the West Coast with a heart full of memories and inspired by their experiences to play their part in future protection. Only then can rural tourism truly thrive without unacceptable cost, as we work together to keep our hidden gems unspoilt for generations to come. 

To find out more about Wilder Ways: