How can a sustainable tourism business sector be nurtured in Scotland?
The issue: Scotland's appeal to tourists the world over is undoubted but what can businesses and stakeholders in the Scottish economy do to better capitalise on tourism and encourage the sector to grow?
The inaugural BQ Scotland Live Debate, held in the Malmaison hotel in Edinburgh, tackled the issue of how to grow a sustainable tourism business sector in Scotland.
A lively two-hour discussion covered a welter of subjects from investment in infrastructure, access to finance for new business, through to defining Scotland’s unique selling points, our attitude to visitors and service, and the events – such as the Commonwealth Games, the Royal Wedding and the arrival of Donald Trump’s golfing complex – which create massive global opportunities for Scotland.
All the participants expressed a deep passion and concern for Scotland and how it can use its unique national heritage, culture and friendliness of the people, to attract more visitors from abroad, but also to encourage more “staycationers” to get to know their own country better.
Mike Cantlay, setting the backdrop for the debate, spoke briefly of the present state of tourism in Scotland. “If we went out and asked tourism businesses how they were doing, we’d get a variety of different responses,” he said. “But I know nobody would say, ‘It’s easy’. It’s a tough trading environment for everybody in this industry. If you look back at 2010, that’s hardly surprising. We had three acts of God; we started the year with a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ storm, and then we had volcanic ash cloud, then we ended the years with a ‘once-in-alifetime snow storm’. And we had airline strikes, spending reviews and a recession.
So it’s been a very tough trading environment.” The starting point though is that Scottish tourism has proven to be a resilience industry for 200 years. Since Sir Walter Scott “invented” the notion of romantic Scotland with his books and poetry, the nation has successfully traded on its icons of tartan, glens, whisky, shortbread and, more recently, golf.
“If you look at the resilience with everything that has been thrown at us, it’s a good starting point,” said Cantlay. “For 200 years, Scotland has been leading tourism globally. It’s been through plagues, wars and recessions worse than this. Scotland’s tourism industry is coping well, despite the fact it is a difficult environment.” Tourism remains Scotland’s number one industry in main disciplines, employing 250,000 people in hotels, conference venues, festivals and concerts, and in a host of activities.
In 2011, it will generate £11bn for the country. Cantlay believes that major events – such as the Royal Wedding on April 29 – helps to keep the UK and Scotland in the international spotlight. He said: “It’s wall-to-wall in the media in the US.
NBC were covering it every day and the question was, will the honeymoon be in Balmoral? This then features glorious aerial shots of the Highlands and Royal Deeside.” Scottish tourism does benefit from the big Hollywood blockbusters, such as Rob Roy, Braveheart and even the Da Vinci Code and Cantlay said the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was in this bracket. And also said the Olympics in London was a profound opportunity for Scottish tourism, more than people realised – then there was the Commonwealth Games 2014, the Ryder Cup Gleneagles 2014, and another year of Homecoming in 2014.
In 2015, Event Scotland has attracted the World Gymnastics Championships, and the Tour de France in Edinburgh in 2017.
The arrival of giant pandas at Edinburgh Zoo – courtesy of the Chinese government – is likely to increase visitor numbers and attract people from across Northern Europe.
“Where would you want to be other than in Scotland with the opportunities going forward?” he asked. But the debate threw open some challenges about the Growth Agenda for Scottish Tourism. How can this be achieved and what does Scotland have to do? The Tourism Framework for Change, a policy document set out by VisitScotland in 2006, set a target that tourism in Scotland would grow by 50% in the following ten years. Yet, five years in, there has been precious little evidence of significant levels of new growth. And VisitScotland admits openly it needs suggestions as to where these new growth areas will be.
LOOKING FOR THE BIG HITS
The debate looked at infrastructure and the importance of getting people to Scotland, and then around the Highlands and Islands, it looked at the kind of funding required for tourism businesses, from bed and breakfasts through to large keynote capital development such as the £700m expansion of the SECC in Glasgow, and it looked at the quality and consistency of the experience.
Mike Cantlay suggested that step changes and “big hits” were needed in various areas. He suggested, for example, the banking sector looking at how tourism business were funded and the perception that financiers have of certain parts of the tourism industry, or in transport and infrastructure and the important of Route Development Funding to promote air links to other destinations – perhaps a high-speed rail link to London, or perhaps in marketing where he cited the £15m in marketing expenditure by VisitScotland unlocking to some £416m of additional spend.
“A new approach in the relationship between VisitScotland and the people of Scotland is appearing,” he said. “This ‘staycation’ fad is more than a fad, it’s been going for several years and Scots are doing things in their own country that they haven’t done before. It’s becoming a habit, and maybe a trend.” Peter Baber posed the question: What can be done to encourage more people in the United Kingdom to carry on with the ‘staycationer’ habit.
Victor Brierley said Scotland should not try and compete with foreign holidays where there was constant sunshine. “There are some incredible things you can do in Scotland,” he said. “People aren’t coming here for the sun but for the unique aspects. We all need to appreciate this. There are some amazing places and experiences all over this country.” Many of the participants spoke about the importance of golf, even at a time when the corporate market, which supported many of those events, had been hit.
Mark Little spoke about his company’s sponsorship of the 2011 Barclays Scottish Open Golf tornament, which is being moved from Loch Lomond to Castle Stuart links at Inverness, on July 7-10. He said that it was a risk because they were taking a major international event to a “frontier” location that hasn’t had a lot of international exposure to top level sport, but that the local people were rallying around. “We were nearly put off because it was too far from Edinburgh and Glasgow and people from the US would have difficulty getting there,” he said.
“Yet it’s a beautiful place, Inverness Airport is next door and there are 40,000 rooms around Nairn and Inverness.”
THE INFRASTRUCTURE QUESTIONS
Alasdair Peacock: “We need to make it as easy as possible for people to come here. So if you’re in Brazil or live in Bournemouth and want to come to Scotland, it should be easy to get where you want, easy to find accommodation, and when you get there the service quality should be of a level that people can say it’s a fantastic experience and want to come back. It’s ease across this, whether its booking or it’s transport. Sometimes we fail in that, but we are getting there.”
Manus Fullerton: “There are a lot of Scottish people who have never explored their own country. If you look at our market, most of it comes from England.”
Heather Buchanan, whose company is based in Melrose, says that she finds there are more weekend break – two-day trip – visitors. “Certainly it’s harder slog in the winter time and during the winter we target the local market. In the summer, we don’t have to do as much on the West Coast because there is the demand. We’ve had people crying in the car park because they can’t find anywhere to stay.”
Chris Harte said that local events play a crucial role in encouraging people to go out of their way to visit new places and do new things. “If, for example, there is a book festival, mountain biking or a whisky festival, which is 30 miles away, that’s more likely to get you out and about to go and visit.”
Neil Steven says there has got to be much more accessibility and joined-up thinking about how you get to such places and events. “I’m going to Oban to go to the Western Isles to play golf and discover the road is closed, or I find something on at the Edinburgh Festival and I decide to take my two children, then we end up standing on the train because they’ve only put on three carriages.
It doesn’t work. It’s this kind of inconsistency that’s an issue.” He went on to say that it wasn’t simply about investing in tourism but in infrastructure in general. “You have to plan it and build but then there is a tourism return on the back of it.”
Chris Harte: “Investment in Scotland is about priorities. There are a million and one projects and things to do to improve life and the industry and it’s about having to make choices and what should these choices be. Say, for example, public money should be used to getting the infrastructure right and leave the private sector to make the best out of that infrastructure.”
Manus Fullerton: “Where we have seen investment in Scotland’s infrastructure it has worked extremely well.
The Route Development Fund for the airlines and Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) for ferries out to the Islands, introduced as a pilot in 2007 – that’s been fantastic, so Scottish Government can by its support make a huge difference in the economy. I’d love to see figures on what value this is delivering. But all too often these things are cut because there is a change of government or emphasis.”
Willie MacLeod: “Road Equivalent Tariff is still a pilot on certain routes. If it is working, and it is working, why is it still a pilot after such a long time – and not been extended to every ferry route? We’re just not getting there. We pilot things and then let them stop.” “We talk about consistency of service but we aren’t talking about consistency of public sector support.
We are very good at coming up with initiatives but not sustaining them. One of the questions for tonight was about sustainable economic growth. If we’re going to have this growth, then let us sustain the initiatives we put in place until they have run their natural course.”
John Sharkey: “People don’t choose to go on holiday because of infrastructure.
You don’t research the ‘infrastructure’, you go because there is an aspirational need.” He spoke of how the SEEC was working in collaboration with Triple Echo, an independent production company working on The Adventure Show on BBC Scotland, to have an Adventure Show Live aimed at people focused on outdoor sport and leisure.
It was very attractive because there were a number of active niche groups using social networking that could be tapped into, adding up to a major viable event.
“That’s not with public investment, that’s with a private sector partner with a private sector event that’s driving people to come to Scotland.”
Victor Brierley: “The first social networking guy was Sir Walter Scott. Everyone goes on about social networking being the new thing – the magic. Scotland became famous because Rabbie Burns was out there networking and telling people about Scotland. Some people think social networking is new, it isn’t. What’s new is the tools and the technology.” He said that VisitScotland had a ‘tough gig’ because it had to try and do so many things.
Mike Cantlay: “What I really want to get at is the ‘big hits’ with this £11bn industry and you want to increase it by 50%. You are talking about massive increases. This is big stuff.” Scottish tourism sits right in the middle of the Scottish economy. It is the bedrock and its consistent, resilience and almost half the Scottish Government’s budget. Tourism has the ability to counterbalance the other sectors of the economy. “If the economy is in some difficulty and the pound weakens, then Scottish tourism immediately becomes more competitive and that helps to balance other sectors. But why 50%? Why not 100%? The answer is that Scotland needs tourism to be as strong as it possibly can be to do all these other things in the economy.”
THE SCOTTISH PEOPLE
What is Scottish tourism, it’s a broad catch-all, says Victory Brierley. “It’s not just pigeonholed as Scottish tourism. It’s Scotland in all its various quirks and guises.”
Manus Fullerton: “One of the things we promote is that tourism is everybody’s business. You can’t get a better ambassador than a friendly and well-informed taxi driver.” But is that message percolating through to all those who meet and greet our visitors?
Peter Baber asked whether the problem was that tourism is such a nebulous industry and not as clearly defined as construction, for example.
Mike Cantlay talked about Vancouver being named as ‘The Best City To Live In the World’. He agreed it was a very friendly city where, in his experience, the people were happy and at peace with themselves. “I’ve always loved Vancouver, but Edinburgh is a better city to live in than Vancouver, in my view.” But he said the Canadians were very friendly to visitors. He reckons the strands between the whole Scottish people and the tourism industry has to be one the biggest step changes in Scotland going forward. He said this comes from the confidence of people who love the place. “We’ve got to get real about it. We need the debate and get it in perspective.”
Peter Baber asked Ian Collins as one of the newcomers to Scotland what was his perception. “I’ve visited five or six places since I came up to Scotland and I probably found most of these places myself through the internet or word of mouth,” he said.
“I think you can do a lot more with people who stay here.” He said he saw a lot of advertising for foreign holidays, such as New Zealand and the Channel Islands, but not a lot of advertising promoting Scotland for Scots.
Gordon Robertson said his company had just realised its master plan to 2040 and says it is about more sustainable growth. “We really are a very small nation on the north-west periphery of Europe in the largest industry in the world – travel, tourism and leisure – but we’ve to get real about this. Aviation is important to bringing people here. We’ve got to look at our strengths. “We are going in a more modest way to build on more modest passenger forecasts – and people understand that.”