Local hiking trails a growing draw for tourists

May 28, 2024

Visitors to Inverness County are increasingly leaving a trail behind them – a hiking trail that is.

While many visitor information centres (VICs) throughout the county are still waiting for tourism numbers to return to pre-Covid days, there’s been a clear shift in visitors’ habits when they tour the county.

Jean MacNeil at the Inverness visitor’s centre says 2023 was a busy year, as they served more than 2,500 visitors, which is up from last year.

“What people are looking for is everything that’s happening on this side of the island,” Jean says. “Many head up towards Chéticamp, the Skyline Trail, all the trails. The trails have been huge this year – the Celtic Shores Coastal Trail and all the trails, and that’s been since Covid.”

Not everybody realizes that so much of the work that goes into maintaining the trail networks all around Inverness County is done by dedicated local volunteer organizations.

Jean says hiking saw a boost in popularity since the onset of the pandemic, as it offers a relatively safe activity. In Chéticamp, Jacqueline Burton says the visitors’ centre there experienced a real shift in traffic, with visitors taking advantage of cooler weather in the fall for hiking.

Jacqueline says September saw 300 more visitors to her centre, compared to the same month in 2022, adding that they served 10,454 travellers this year, a number similar to last season.

“Everybody goes to the park to do the hiking trails,” she explains. “It’s actually busier in September and October than it is May and June.”

The annual Glendale Scottish Concert is one of the many events that bring visitors to the region each summer.

It’s the same story in the Margarees, where the VIC in Margaree Forks catered to crowds of visitors in 2022 who were looking for hiking and walking trails. Mary MacNeil, who runs that centre, says they advised more than 5,000 visitors this season, which is still far off the more than 10,000 they’d see prior to Covid.

Mary suggests some of the reason for the lower numbers is that, in years past, people did not rely on digitally formatted information as they do today.

“I will say that many people still want print information and brochures, especially in an area like Margaree where satellite and cellular service can be unreliable,” she adds.

She says travelers ask about four main categories: outdoor experiences, cultural experiences, dining, and natural sights reflecting the beauty of local topography.

“People were most interested in hiking or walking trails, adventures on the Margaree River, Celtic music and the Gaelic language, seafood specialties and local artisans,” she notes. “Egypt Falls, Cape Clear, the beaches, the Dancing Goat, Larch Wood Enterprises, square dances, and musical events at the Barn on the grounds of the Normaway Inn were sought-after destinations.”

“As well, a river tour with Live Life In Tents and catching a trout at Old Miller Trout Farm were very popular. As the season progressed, the lure of the Atlantic salmon brought many visitors to the area, some of which have been returning to the area for generations. The Margaree Salmon Museum is a highlight for visitors and has been for over 50 years.”

Mary says along with the growing popularity of hiking, the Celtic Colours music festival is also a big reason why tourists are visiting the region later in the season.

The provincial visitor information centre in Port Hastings doesn’t track the number of travelers using its facility who are intending to visit Inverness County. But their numbers do also reflect the region’s struggle to return to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019, when 84,163 visitors used the Port Hastings centre.

That number dropped dramatically in 2020 to 8,992 but rose substantially in 2021 to 32,377 and again in 2022 to 65,090. But with 55,546 visitors by the end of September this year, it appears that growth is stalling.

The newest visitors’ centre in the county is in Mabou, where Mabou Communications operated a VIC out of the old post office building for the first time in 2023. Jimmy Cummings, chair of the community-owned company, says their office had been serving unofficially as a visitors’ centre for years, given its location beside the busy Red Shoe Pub in the centre of the village.

Warden Bonny MacIsaac and Inverness MLA Allan MacMaster (far left of photo), with municipal staff and local sports club organizers, scoped out the site of the future multi-court facility.

“The idea of setting up a visitor information centre at the post office came from the community as a way we could help the business grow,” Jimmy explains. “That led to approaching the local municipal councillor to make a formal request.”

Jimmy says the centre was late in getting set up in 2023, but he looks forward to being fully operational in 2024. He says they received a great deal of help from other visitors’ centres in the county and of course from the municipality.

“They provided us with brochures, and booklets and maps and that sort of stuff, but again because we were late, we didn’t really get approved till the middle of May,” he says, adding that “next year, we hope to get up to speed with proper signage and tourism materials.”