The prospect of a world-class centre at the Geodha Sgoilt has taken some more steps forward over the past few months and it is expected that by the autumn a final, extensive and robust business plan for Ionad Hiort will be completed.
A major piece of consultancy work, to refine the concept of the project as well as its viability, was completed in early April. This was undertaken by James Rebanks an expert advisor to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in relation to sustainable tourism projects world-wide. He is the author of two seminal studies used by Governments, the World Bank, UNESCO and international tourism development organisations.
In recent months the Ionad Hiort board have presented the Rebanks report to potential partners and interested organisations including the National Trust, Historic Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Glasgow School of Art and all the local cultural, tourism and development agencies.
In spite of the many challenges the project faces, not least those associated with remoteness, distance from the market and the seasonal nature of tourism, Rebanks described the Ionad Hiort project as “one of the most exciting, ambitious and important projects I have ever seen… and potentially a game changer for the whole of the Hebrides”.
He comes to that conclusion after carefully weighing the many challenges against the potential of the centre to deliver benefits across a range of fronts. The strength of the project, according to the Rebanks analysis, lies in the global reach of the St Kilda story, which - as interest in World Heritage Sites continues to grow - will have even greater resonance in the future.
If the core story of St Kilda - a people living by what nature alone provided and often succumbing to its brutality- is told in an innovative and contemporary way, then Rebanks believes there is a “significant existing and future market” for Ionad Hiort.
He recognises the breadth of motivations that have driven the project thus far. Principal among them is the ongoing struggle to maintain living communities in remote peripheral areas like Uig into the future. For UNESCO, the development of Ionad Hiort will be used as an exemplar for similar challenges around the world - how to utilise the status of World Heritage sites for the economic and social benefit of the localities in which they are situated.
The World Heritage and UNESCO brands are growing in value with regard to tourism because they act as indicators of ‘exceptionalism’. According to Rebanks, the less accessible places are, the more prestigious the story and the more desirable visiting them becomes. In this case, the global interest is in the core story of the people and culture of St Kilda.
Ionad Hiort will tell the story of the St Kildans through time. It can illustrate digitally and in more traditional ways - imagery and sound - aspects of their culture and language. It will show their history, their struggles and resilience, their riches and sorrows, and then the final leaving, in ways that are impossible to do on St Kilda itself.
The report suggests a phased ‘master-plan’ that starts with a sensible option which initially fulfils some, but not all, of the project’s aspirations. The phased approach, suggested by Rebanks, is attractive because it can deliver a world-class visitor centre, in an iconic building, with technological elements and all the usual retail and service facilities rapidly. Everything else takes time and is more costly.
The broader aspirations for Ionad Hiort includes options that could extend the function of the centre and enable it to operate on a year round basis. The phased approach, however, is attractive in terms of business viability and can be delivered quickly. It remains cutting edge. The building and the content will have to offer an intense and satisfying visitor experience
Rebanks says: “In the eyes of UNESCO and others, this project is a flagship for remote access of sensitive historic sites and creative research and development. If the project can meet its own aspirations then it will receive global attention, with all the PR benefits for the Hebrides that entails”.
It will create commercial and intellectual opportunities for everyone involved in the continuing development of Ionad Hiort. The bottom line is that unique projects like this are challenging to make happen, but ultimately have the chance to work and to deliver great results.
We have consulted widely and almost all the stakeholders think that something great is possible at Ionad Hiort. But the consensus is that to succeed, it has to be executed remarkably well. The feeling is that something excellent or ‘world class’ will work but anything less would be likely fail. That is a challenge we are delighted to accept!
The full Rebanks report is available from any of the Ionad Hiort board members and also available under news item Rebanks Report on this site.