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Melanie flies flag for the region

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By Fiona Reid
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Melanie flies flag for the region

MELANIE Allen may only have lived in Dumfries and Galloway for seven years, but she’s already made her mark and helped put the region on the map.

For Derbyshire native Melanie, who runs Nithbank Country Estate near Thornhill with husband John, both pictured, has become a leading light in the tourism sector locally and is involved with countless other organisations.

Her efforts, many voluntary, and her boundless enthusiasm and passion for the region have also earned her many awards, including most recently being crowned tourism champion at the South of Scotland Thistle Awards.

And that may even develop into national status this weekend as she contests her title at the Scottish Thistle Awards.

It’s been a whirlwind few years since the Allens took on Nithbank and Melanie never imagined how invested in the community she would become.

They moved north after their two sons flew the nest, choosing Dumfries and Galloway after falling in love with it on regular visits.

Now it feels more like home than anywhere else, as she said: “If I go back to the Midlands, I feel homesick for here.

“I do not think we could have moved into a region that’s more welcoming than Dumfries and Galloway.”

But it’s a two-way street as the area is lucky to have Melanie and she quickly became a vital player, initially just getting out and about to meet people.

“John was working away, he said go out and meet people . . . I have done that in abundance!” she laughs. “I just really love it, I’m very enthusiastic about the region, I have a real passion and find it so interesting what people are doing.

“This region is really special.

“We have done lots of exploring ourselves so we can direct guests, so we have got a real appreciation for it.”

Melanie has been the chair of the Galloway and South Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere’s Partnership Board for two years and is also a director for the SCOTO network; and a committee member for the Scottish Tourism and Hospitality Industry Leadership Group

She was on the South of Scotland Destination Alliance, including a spell as interim CEO, as well as being Thornhill Station Action Group secretary and chair of the Mid Nithsdale Red Squirrel Network.

She said: “I got involved in the biosphere early, I fell into it. It’s been really interesting for me and really rewarding.

“We have gone through a re-designation with Unesco earlier this year. It’s seen as a leader in its field.”

Her non-executive position there involves looking at governance and strategic goals and she added: “It takes up lot of time but I really enjoy it and it’s great to see it grow. SOSE have really changed the dynamic with their funding and expertise.”

Alongside, she runs their award-winning five star guest house at Nithbank, with a focus on green, sustainability and local.

They have a rare gold award for Green Tourism from VisitScotland and were also named ‘Best B&B/Guest House Experience’ at last month’s South Scotland Thistle Awards, as well as picking up the Climate Action Award.

And the Allens will be at the awards in Glasgow tonight (Friday) to see if they can replicate those at national level too, and also win overall for Best Luxury Experience.

It’s not all been good times though and like everyone else in hospitality, they suffered during covid.

Melanie said: “After two years of renovations, we opened in 2019 then in March 2020 covid arrived. It had a massive impact.

“We shut down in March 2020, Scottish hospitality opened in the July then had to close down again at Xmas time until late spring 2021.

“It has been very challenging.”

However, the size of the house and fact they only operate two luxury guest rooms meant they were well placed to handle the cleaning and distancing protocols and nervous visitors.

And in true Melanie style, she kept busy through the pandemic by working for the Association of Scottish Self Caterers supporting operators and lobbying for grants.

“It added a bit of purpose and an understanding of what businesses were dealing with,” she said.

Now fully up and running again, she has been concentrating on developing her own business and making sure guests get the personal touch and a memorable stay.

Swiss and American visitors have proved to be a huge market for them, but she’s also noticed a lot of people travelling from within an hour too since lockdown.

Encouraging everyone to explore what’s on their doorstep is another of Melanie’s passions and she said: “We want to welcome tourists but we have all to be mindful that we have to support shops, tourist attractions too.

“We have a lot of social enterprises that are great examples of community initiatives, like The Stove and Usual Place, Midsteeple and Loch Arthur. It’s down to us all to support these initiatives. It’s actually about people getting involved.

“I know people are busy operating their businesses but if they took time to really champion what they do and market what they do, it would help support the viability of the region – we all need to shout a bit louder.”

She continued: “Covid started a conversation about how we want to see the region grow and develop.

“I do not want us to have big hotels and big attractions here, that would be us forcing the region to be something it is not.

“We already have amazing things: Spring Fling is envied by other regions; the Wigtown Book Festival; the Oyster Festival at Stranraer.

“My 20 year vision is that our tourism offering is very similar to what it is now but on a larger scale in terms of a really good accommodation spread across the region and experiences that are quality and bespoke and quality cafes and restaurants. Not defining this region by certain itineraries or routes, leaving people to discover it.”

Asked for her thoughts on the National Park proposal for Galloway, she said: “As a biosphere, we feel there’s a great foundation for a National Park with the biosphere here and we welcome the government looking at National Park proposals.

“We all want to see the region recognised a bit more and a National Park brings that recognition.

“The challenge for me is there’s a lot of ambiguity about what a National Park looks like.

“We need to be really mindful of the proposition we put forward for Galloway and it does not stifle organic growth.

“But I am a glass half full not half empty person.”

Which just about sums her up.

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