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Tourism Whitelee Project: Rules of attraction rewritten

UK: Numerous reports, newspaper articles and statements from anti-wind groups decry wind farms as repellent to tourism, but one project is turning this on its head.

Boarding the trail. Visitors explore the land of the turbines
Boarding the trail. Visitors explore the land of the turbines

Europe's largest onshore wind farm, the 539MW Whitelee project, just 20 minutes' drive from Glasgow in Scotland, is pulling in visitors by positioning the development as an attraction in itself.

The centre was set up by Scottish Power in a push to familiarise people with the benefits of wind power.

"The best way to convince the public that wind farms are a good idea is to introduce people to them face to face," says John Alexander, project director of Scottish Power Renewables. "We've only had positive reactions from people who have come and seen the wind farm."

Before even entering the centre, visitors are met with the imposing presence of one of the turbine blades, which never fails to impress with its size, says Alexander. Within the centre itself, visitors can take in displays explaining wind power, videos of the construction of Whitelee and interactive exhibits including a model wind farm.

There is also a school visit programme run in conjunction with the Glasgow Science Centre.

Jacopo Moccia, head of political affairs at EWEA, is enthusiastic about this development: "This kind of thing dispels the myths about tourists being scared off by wind farms. It shows they can offer something positive," he says. "You don't get people flocking to visit a motorway or a chemical plant, but here we have a piece of infrastructure that performs a function and brings benefits to the area."

Local benefits

The benefits of such projects lie not just in acting as a PR tool for the wind industry, but also in offering positives for the local community. The 25-square kilometre site is open for people to explore as they wish. Visitors can ride their bikes or horses on the 130 kilometres of trails that wind among the 215 turbines.

The Whitelee model is not, however, something that can be applied universally. The visitor centre cost around £2 million (EUR2.36 million) to set up, and with running costs on top of that, the outlay is substantial.

"Whitelee is Europe's biggest onshore wind farm, so in terms of absorbing the cost of such a project, it's much more achievable," says Alexander.

Whitelee is not alone in its mission to attract visitors. A number of smaller projects across Europe are helping to blaze the trail. Near Aachen in Germany, those with a head for heights can make their way up the 300-step spiral staircase into a viewing platform; visitors can take in the Windpark Holtriem in all its glory.

While there are more challenges involved in attracting visitors to offshore wind farms, that has not stopped some developers from trying. At the Middelgrunden offshore wind farm in Denmark owned by Dong Energy, visitors are whisked out to the 20-turbine site on boats.

A little closer to shore, on the promenade of English east-coast holiday resort Great Yarmouth, E.on has set up a centre that pulls in 33,000 people every year. Telescopes allow visitors to take a better look at the wind farm itself, while a collection of audio-visual displays bring the concept of wind power to life.

The question of the aesthetics of wind farms close to the coast and their detrimental effect on tourists' desire to visit an area is one that has come up frequently during permitting processes. But a report by the German Offshore Wind Energy Foundation has found that if some effort is made the contrary is true.

It discovered that the number of sailing boats visiting Nysted harbour in Denmark actually increased after the 373MW Nysted wind farm was established off its coast.

The foundation says there is a "fascination with offshore wind technology" and that attractions related to wind farms can open up tourism opportunities.

The success of these projects shows that if developers are willing to try, they can they assuage local fears about wind farms, attract visitors to an area and bolster support for the whole wind industry.

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