TWO remote tourist information centres on and near the booming North Coast 500 visitor route are facing closure after their leases were hiked by their landlord who lives more than 700 miles away.
VisitScotland said it could not meet the demands being made to triple the length of the leases, which had also been greatly increased in rent.
Community leaders claim the landlord is trying to cash-in on the popularity of the North Coast 500 drive route – which has seen a massive increase in tourists. Ironically the visitor centres have never been more needed or popular.
Dorset-based businessman Michael Bonham Cozens, said he only bought the centres at Durness and Lochinver in Sutherland out of “sentimental” reasons after exploring the coast on a sailing trip.
He has owned the centres for 12 years.
But the move to seek a nine-year renewal for the licences has been refused by VisitScotland – who say it was not in the taxpayers’ interest to commit to such long periods.
They now face having no home in the popular area.
The Durness lease with the tourist body ends next month and Lochinver’s term comes to a finish in May. A small part of the Durness building is leased to Highland Council for its threatened ranger service and is also due to end in the next few months.
Mr Cozens is seeking £9500-a-year, rising to £11,500 per annum over the period of the lease for Durness and £12,500-ayear, rising to £15,000 per annum for Lochinver.
Community leaders are now fighting to save the centres, which have seen booming trade from the North Coast 500 initiative.
Inquiries at the Durness centre, which is directly on the 500 mile plus route, soared by more than a quarter last year.
Mr Bonham Cozens, 85, said: “I am looking for somebody who can operate a vibrant commercial business and provide a tourist centre as part of that business.
“I have served notice and I am advertising the properties and I have had good interest. I have no connection with the area but I bought them out of sentimental reasons having sailed in that area.
“I earnestly hope that the new tenants of the main part of the Durness premises will come to suitable arrangement for the ranger service to be continued for the benefit of the community and visitors.
“Interest will be welcome from any business or organisation that thinks they can make a profitable occupation of the premises. This, of course, includes Visit Scotland and the Highland Council. As with all commercial leases being offered, all is subject to negotiation.”
But Sarah Fuller, chair of the Durness Development Group, said:”The value and length of the lease seems to have increased in time with the popularity of the North Coast 500. We know the rent was £5800-a-year in 2014. Not many people locally will able to afford the new rent.
“Those centres are vital to the area. More and more people are coming but face having nowhere in the whole of North West Sutherland to help inform them centrally of what is available locally. Also a lot of community assets are in those buildings. It is a real worry. We are exploring other options urgently.”
Scott Macpherson, chairman of Durness Community Council, added: “It will be a huge loss to the village if it closes. There are also two jobs involved. We are very concerned.
“It came out of the blue. That building is more than a tourist information centre – it is full of information.”
VisitScotland said it had been unable to reach agreement over Durness and Lochinver.
A spokesperson said: “It is regrettable that we have been unable to reach a positive outcome regarding the leases of our iCentres in Durness and Lochinver.
“We have co-operated with negotiations and offered a 3+1 year lease extension at the increased rent proposed by the landlord. The landlord has since changed the terms and we cannot accept his new requirement of a nine year lease agreement with no lease break, which does not represent good value for money for the public purse.
“We are therefore now exploring alternative options – in consultation with local groups – for the provision of visitor information in Durness and Lochinver.
“VisitScotland is committed to working with partners in the public and private sector to enhance the provision of visitor information and inspiration, and to ensure that every visitor to Scotland has the warmest welcome and receives quality information to help them make the most of their stay.”
The venue in Durness is shared by tourist information and Highland Council’s countryside ranger service, which is separately under threat, and could be axed as a result of budget cuts.
Long-serving northwest Sutherland ranger Donald Mitchell and his wife Valerie could both lose their jobs because she is part of the Durness tourist information facility.
Mr Mitchell said: “It is a very worrying time. The centre is increasingly important for the community, particularly with the success of the NC500.”