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Lockdown leads more people to connect with local heritage sites

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21 May 2020

Sensors capture change in people’s use of places and visitor patterns at well-known locations

People across Scotland are re-discovering beauty spots on their doorsteps and staying away from visitor hotspots, according to results from a series of sensors deployed in different parts of the country.

Environmental technology company Wilderness Sensors has placed a series of internet-connected footfall counters at locations across Scotland, including footpaths near its HQ in Stewarton, East Ayrshire, and a selection of Historic Environment Scotland (HES) unmanned properties – a section of the Antonine Wall near Bonnybridge among them.

More recently, the business has also deployed counters on the West Highland Way in partnership with CENSIS, Stirling Council, Gartness Community Group.

Prior to lockdown, the counter in Stewarton would pick up an average count of around 30 people per day taking in a picturesque local river walk. The same counter has picked up a four-fold increase in the number of people walking by the river, with up to 120 each day.

Similarly, the counters at the Antonine Wall have registered a steady increase in visits following lockdown. In January and February, the counter picked up around 1,300 people, rising to 2,500 in March. However, by April, the figure has increased to more than 3,500 and May is projected to be higher again.

Alistair Carty, Technical Director at Wilderness Sensors, said: “We have had a counter on the Stewarton river walk for a long time, counting the number of people who take a walk along the river. Normally, it picks up a few dozen people every day – but we have seen a real usage pattern shift. Stewarton is a commuter town and, as a result of lockdown, there are probably a lot of people who are re-discovering what their local area has to offer, making the walk part of their daily routine.

“The counters at the Antonine Wall are part of an ongoing programme of deployments across Historic Environment Scotland’s unmanned sites. They are designed to help the organisation understand how these places are being used and where interventions may be required – for example, if there are a lot of visitors at the site, a member of staff might need to be there too.

“The Antonine Wall site at Rough Castle is a big open space, so it can handle the increasing number of people walking there while social distancing guidelines are in place. Interestingly, footfall has become more pronounced at the weekend, rather than evenly spread across the week. We interpret that as the reduced numbers of professional dog walkers that would use the site on weekdays. But overall, the site is considerably busier and now follows a more traditional “visitor” pattern.

“Inevitably, there is an element of seasonality to the numbers; but that only explains part of it. The change in visitors has been stark and the fact that it is not only the weekends shows that lockdown has had a significant effect on people’s habits. It is making people look to their local area and heritage sites, perhaps re-discovering these places or taking them in for the first time.”

Nick Thomas, Head of Commercial Performance & Systems at Historic Environment Scotland, commented: “Monitoring our unstaffed properties will be of particular importance during this current period of restricted movement and beyond. With visitors likely to favour less populated and open sites in the coming months we will need to be aware of the potential pressures that this generates. The Wilderness Sensors are an important tool in this remote monitoring process across our diverse estate.”

Originally intended to help local communities optimise services for the many thousands of visitors taking on one of Scotland’s most famous treks each year, the additional counters at the West Highland Way will, for the moment, be used to understand how local people use the trail. The initial objectives will be re-introduced at a later date, when visitors start to return to the area.

The initiative follows a recent ‘FutureTech’ seminar held by CENSIS at Loch Lomond and The Trossachs Country Park HQ in Balloch, which explored the use of IoT in tourism. The workshop was part of a wider programme of business support commissioned by the Scottish Government and delivered by CENSIS to explore and support the use of IoT in Scotland’s key sectors.

Rachael Wakefield, CENSIS Business Development Manager, added: “One of the main aims of the project is to provide a boost to the local economy, by helping businesses plan ahead for staffing, stock, and opening hours using visitor data. However, the outbreak of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown has brought an unexpected element, in which we are observing just how quiet the route is in late spring – normally one of the most popular times of the year to attempt the walk.

Alongside the footfall counters, we plan to install other sensor systems to monitor variables such as weather conditions and river levels, and so we still expect to see some interesting data from this stage of the project. It is a great example of how sensors and IoT technologies can be used to better understand how visitors are interacting with Scotland’s heritage and help local businesses, which depend on tourists, to more efficiently plan.”