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Last Updated on 08/05/2021

My dear friend, Francesca, of Little Lost Travel, has written a lot about sustainable tourism, its importance, and what it means to her. 

“Sustainable travel, which is often tied together with responsible travel, green travel and eco-tourism, supports the idea of conscious travel and being mindful of how our actions abroad affect others.”

While sustainable travel is something that I support, it’s not always a top of mind consideration for choosing destinations. 

Inspired by the idea of conscious travel and being mindful of travel’s impacts, I am delighted to highlight recent sustainability initiatives from my new home on the Isle of Islay. Sustainable tourism didn’t play an active role in my decision to tie my future to this great island, but it’s definitely a cherry on top.

My first visit to Islay last summer was magical – from the fresh salty, sea air, to the gorgeous friendliness and hospitality on the island.  And of course, the whisky.  For me, some of that magic was knowing how important the island itself is to its residents.  They’re proud and protective of the land that provides for their livelihoods. 

Many people outside of Scotland may not have heard of Islay, pronounced EYE-lah. For those who know it, it’s likely because of their thriving scotch whisky industry. But there’s something new and exciting brewing on Islay. 

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This island community, off the west coast of Scotland, is proactively taking steps to increase the sustainability of their island and their tourism. 

Despite being Scotland’s smallest whisky region in size, it’s no surprise that the majority of tourism to Islay centers around whisky.  And in order to increase the sustainability of the island, what better way than to start with its biggest industry?

1. Marine energy to power distilleries

Nova tidal eergy turbine under the sea near Islay in Scotland.

Underwater turbines at work. Photo courtesy of Nova Innovation

Personally, I had never heard of “marine energy” or those energy options available to us from the sea.  But I was really excited to hear of a new project by Nova Innovation, located in the waters between Islay and neighboring Jura. 

The project, which involves a series of underwater turbines utilizes energy created by waves, and will begin by powering the islands’ whisky distilleries. Nine distilleries on Islay and two on Jura will benefit from clean, renewable wave energy.  

The energy will help decrease the islands’ reliance on fossil fuels. According to Nova Innovation, there will be minimal impact on the environment – “The subsea turbines have no visual impact on the landscape, create no shipping or navigational hazard, and work in harmony with the marine environment.”

Working in harmony with the marine environment – I love this! What a fantastic initiative by Nova Innovation. And not only that, I love that the whisky industry on Islay is embracing renewable, marine energy!

2. 100% Islay Whisky

Islay Scotch whisky pouring into a glass

Bottoms up! Islay are famous for the best Scotch around

Now that marine energy will be powering the distilleries, another facet of the sustainability of whisky production is its focus on locally sourced products. Although Scotch is produced in Scotland, that criteria is broad. Not as broad as “Japanese Whisky”, which could also be produced in Scotland. 

It’s funny and confusing. But the assumption that the scotch whisky industry is localized, is kind of a misnomer. One of the criteria of Scotch whisky is that it must be made in Scotland from only cereals, water and yeast. But that means that the barley could be from a different corner of Scotland than the water source or distillery.

Kilchoman Distillery, known as Islay’s farm distillery, is unique compared to its other whisky distilling brethren. Kichoman grows most of its own barley, malts the barley on its own malting floor, and then distils, warehouses, and bottles the spirit directly on the island. 

Most of this happens within walking distance from the Visitor Center and Café. It’s pretty impressive considering that distilleries often buy their barley, let alone malt it themselves on their own malting floor! 

I had the delightful pleasure to tour Kilchoman Distillery last summer. You drive through the barley fields as you make your way to the distillery visitor center. As far as meets the eye is the full process of Kilchoman’s whisky production, from barley to bottle. 

Just to bring it home, one of their whisky expressions is named 100% Islay. This distillery is focused on the island and a great example of a locally sourced supply chain!

3. Nature Tourism on Islay

You may see a highland cow in a meadow.

You may see a highland cow on Islay

Outside of whisky tourism, Islay also thrives in its promotion of responsible nature tourism. 

There are several Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) sites on the island for the bird watching enthusiast or amateur alike. At the Oa Nature Reserve, you can hike up to the American Monument to commemorate the lives of soldiers lost in the waters off the coasts of Islay. 

The views of the North Atlantic from the Cliffside are incredible! You’re guaranteed to spot a Highland cow on the way up to the monument.

If birds or cows aren’t your thing, what about whales and dolphins? Islay has a few stops along the Hebridean Whale Trail, which runs along Scotland’s west coast. 

A finalist in National Geographic Traveller’s 2019 “New National Treasure” and winner of Nature of Scotland’s 2020 “Coasts and Waters” award, the Hebridean Whale Trail engages with travellers with a Whale sightings check-in and map.

On Islay, from Port Askaig to Port Ellen back over to the Oa, the whale sightings map shows mostly bottlenose dolphins, but also minke whales. 

Further north around Portnahaven and Port Wemyss, seals rule the rocks in those fishing villages.  You’ll always find them sunbathing on the rocks, without a care in the world.

So, grab some binoculars or your camera, and go see some nature! Observe nature, without disturbing anything – the way nature intended. 

Final Thoughts on Sustainable Tourism on Islay

Seal lying on the rocks in Islay

Islay is a must-visit for your Scotland itinerary

There’s something so invigorating and refreshing about a community that’s passionate about preserving its nature and locale. 

The proactive initiatives Islay is taking with their whisky and tourism industries should be explored in other communities elsewhere. 

I’m looking forward to seeing how sustainable tourism continues to develop on Islay – what new and exciting innovations will arise in the coming years. 

You can follow Lannie’s Food & Travel blog here. 


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