In Scotland, Wind Turbines a Big, in Fact, Huge, Draw for Tourists

February 21, 2023

Familiarity and knowledge dispel ignorance and fear. Huh.


The sheer size and scale of wind turbines, which can stand over 800 feet tall and rotate at up to 200 miles per hour, is often used against them. Speaking in Britain’s House of Commons last year, Neil Parish, then an MP and chair of an influential environmental committee, expressed a typical view: “Why do people come to many of our great constituencies? Because they are beautiful,” he said. “Tourist[s] love to come to them, but I promise that they do not come looking for solar or wind farms.”

Except there is growing evidence that, at least sometimes, they do. A number of companies now offer wind farm tours to curious tourists who are keen to understand how the turbines work and what they’re like up close. In Scotland, adventurous visitors can mountain bike and hike around an onshore wind farm, and boat tours in the UK and US offer the chance to sail right underneath a turbine’s blades. In Denmark, small groups can even climb an offshore turbine themselves. While there’s no data to indicate the size of this nascent slice of the hospitality sector, there is ample research to suggest that travelers are not only unfazed by wind farms, but find them objects of fascination.

“They’re the biggest rotating devices on the planet. They dwarf a 747. At sea, they’re a little otherworldly,” says Jeremy Firestone, a University of Delaware professor who took a group of students to visit a wind farm off the shore of Rhode Island in 2016. He called the experience “like Disneyland for adults.”

The wind farm Firestone visited, about four miles from Block Island, has been in operation since 2016: It was the first commercial offshore wind farm in the US. Tours started the same year, and now run around five times annually. Boat captain Charlie Donilon, who piloted Firestone’s tour and still runs them today, supplements the view with informative chatter about wind power and construction of the giant turbines. Many of Donilon’s clients are academics looking to learn more about renewable energy, but some are pleasure-seekers throwing in a wind farm tour alongside lunch and a trip to the nearby lighthouse.

“I thought, ‘This is definitely going to be a moneymaker,’” Donilon says, comparing wind farms to America’s greatest infrastructure. “It’s hard to believe that these giant structures were built by man. You might put them in the same category as the space shuttle, or the Hoover Dam.” 

Of course, some people are drawn to anything that spins, splashes or bangs. In Scotland, hydroelectric energy already has an 80-year history; dams, though far from naturally beautiful, have become an attraction and a resource for tourists and school groups. “Industrial tourism” or, less charitably, “nerd tourism,” has also long pulled people to Britain’s mills, mines and canals. 

“You wouldn’t have been able to go to the big gas power stations because they’re not really open, but this is an opportunity, and people are interested in it,” says Simon Cleary, economics director at Scottish consultancy Biggar Economics.

Windy sites are often already wild, beautiful places that depend on visitors for their economy, making it particularly important to understand how tourists feel about visible turbines. Last year, Biggar conducted a study meant to evaluate whether a proposed onshore development in Wales, visible from 13th century Caerphilly Castle, would hurt visitor numbers. It found that visits to Scotland’s Stirling Castle had risen by 60% since the construction of a similarly visible wind farm, a trend driven not by the turbines themselves but by “the Outlander effect,” a historical Starz TV drama that boosted interest in Scottish castles. Still: Views of modern turbines from the ramparts did not seem to prevent fans from indulging in fantasies of rolling hills populated by 18th century Highland warriors. 

“People are less sensitive to the visual impact than you might think,” Cleary says. 

Hans Christian Soerensen, a civil engineer and one of the founders of the Middelgrunden project, first asked local skipper Alex Garavano to take people to the windmills two decades ago. Last year they ran around 30 tours for up to 18 people each time, with Soerensen present to answer questions and provide information. 

One of the goals of the cooperative is to educate people about wind power. Soerensen, who also works as a consultant on wave and tidal power projects, says close interaction is key to tackling public opposition. “People are scared about what they don’t know about,” he says. “That’s what I have seen many, many times, when we have new projects in regions which don’t have wind turbines. That’s what we try to demonstrate here in Copenhagen when we have people visiting. This is really not a monster.” In particular, he says, getting close to the turbines dismisses worries about noise, often one of the major sources of concern.  


One Response to “In Scotland, Wind Turbines a Big, in Fact, Huge, Draw for Tourists”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    “Industrial tourism” or, less charitably, “nerd tourism,”

    Hey, my family resembles that remark!

    But I think the assembly plants where you can really appreciate the size of the nacelles would be cooler.

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