MDB Insight Blog

Travel Notes from an Economic Developer

This week our #WednesdayswithMDBInsight post takes us along for some trekking and trail-spotting with Natasha Gaudio Harrison, Consultant.

I once explained to a friend a little about what our job in economic development entails and she listened intently and then looked at me and said “wow, you must travel weird.” I had never thought about it, but she was right – I do

Recently, I was on my honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands. My husband and I hiked the northern half of the West Highland Way and followed it with five days of driving around and exploring by car. What did I notice? Well first I thought a lot about how well-established Scotland’s walking trail infrastructure is. There are gorgeous, multi-day length, extremely well-marked walking trails all over Scotland. A walk through any small town would lead us to a gorgeous hillside trail leading to a wooded area between farmlands. Trail maintenance is something I think about a lot in the context of economic and tourism development.

I’m something of an outdoorswoman, and I’ve often thought about the value of trail infrastructure, adequate communication channels for that infrastructure, and its value as a tourism asset as well as a community asset. What’s interesting to me about the myth of the outdoors, specifically in Canada and our imagined idea of wilderness and our ingrained frontier mentality, is that outdoor experiences are in a sense meant to make us feel that we are venturing into uncharted territory. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Some of the best hiking or walking trails I’ve ever been on exist as continuations of long-established routes from throughout the history of human trade and travel.

The West Highland Way, for those unfamiliar, follows many ancient roads, including coaching routes, droving roads, and military roads. It runs 154 kilometres and walkers generally complete it in 7 or 8 days. Various stretches pass historic sites such as where Robert the Bruce was defeated in 1306, or the scene of the Glencoe Massacre in 1692. While you may not see another person on the trail for significant stretches of time, you’re always aware of the presence of human contact with the landscape – and the economic function the route once served. 

Today, the West Highland Way is estimated to contribute £5.5 million each year to the local economy. While walkers can camp for free at various points along the trail, the majority stay in paid lodgings and eat at pubs and inns which are located along stretches of the trail. Many of these businesses market exclusively to travelers of the West Highland Way. That’s how significant the impact of a well-maintained hiking trail can be. 

In Ontario, some of our best trails are repurposed commerce routes. Rail trails are some of my favourites – by bicycle especially. Rail trails – trails that were previously a train route - often run along the lowest point of elevation, sometimes parallel to rivers. As they’re interconnected over longer distances, they can often provide a long distance experience just as the West Highland Way does.  In Kingston, we’re lucky to have access to the K&P Rail Trail, which runs along the old Kingston Pembroke railway bed from (surprise, surprise) Kingston to Pembroke. I’ve only done sections of it, but it has me wondering – what kind of unleveraged economic opportunities do our Ontario rail trails represent?

To learn more about Natasha and the other members of our team, go to

Our Wednesdays with MDB Insight posts feature the thinkers and doers on our team sharing ideas and talking about what’s important to us as professionals. We have very diverse backgrounds and a range of interests to share with you. We hope you’re enjoying these posts and that you will join the conversation with us and let us know what’s on your mind mid-week.

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