Associate Feature: Time for a Break
It is no secret that the coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on Scotland’s tourism industry, but it was not until March this year that the full scale of that was laid bare.
In a report titled Scottish Tourism and COVID-19, Alison O’Connor, a senior economic analyst in the Scottish Parliament’s financial scrutiny unit, noted that while the Scottish economy as a whole contracted by 7.2 per cent between February and December last year, the accommodation and food services sectors had fallen by a massive 60 per cent.
It is not a statistic that Malcolm Roughead, chief executive of tourism organisation VisitScotland, needs to be reminded of. Having led the non-departmental public body for over a decade, Roughead has witnessed many ebbs and flows in the tourism sector, but says the impact coronavirus has had on all areas of the industry – and beyond – has been unlike anything he has ever witnessed before.
“The impact has been huge in terms of the number of businesses that have been affected,” he says.
“What’s been quite interesting is that people have seen just how much the visitor economy permeates its way through the whole economy. Our cities had no events, festivals or hospitality; retail suffered. The life was sucked out of everywhere and the knock-on impact into the supply chain has been significant.”
As its name makes clear, one of VisitScotland’s main priorities is to encourage people to visit Scotland and one of the main planks of its work is promoting the country as a tourist destination.
Another is to support businesses operating in the sector by, among other things, highlighting what they have to offer tourists through a five-point ratings scheme.
When the pandemic hit it became an advisory body too, acting as an information point for businesses struggling to make sense of an ever-changing set of rules, regulations and guidelines.
“From our own perspective, we looked at our organisation and thought ‘it’s not business as usual, we need to adapt to this’,” Roughead says.
“We set up teams to look at business support and advice, and created signposts to funding opportunities, utilising our corporate website as a source of information for the industry. That was about helping businesses understand what the guidelines meant and what the impact would be.
“It was very different for different parts of the industry – social distancing for some was an issue but for others it was less so. All the guidelines had to be interpreted for individual businesses.”
Given its role as a public body as well as a voice for the industry, VisitScotland was also a founding member of the Scottish Tourism Emergency Response Group. That saw it work alongside bodies such as COSLA, the enterprise agencies, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Tourism Alliance to facilitate a two-way conversation between the sector and the government.
We need to make sure that tourism puts back more than it takes out; responsible tourism is about creating better places for people to live, work and visit.
“It’s a conduit into the government but also out of the government into the industry,” Roughead says of the group.
“It allowed us [industry bodies] to be as joined up as possible with our responses but also gave us a platform so that ministers could hear what the issues were. That led to a taskforce being set up and at the end of last year £25m was allocated to help businesses come through this.”
Portree on Skye, an area of the country that has seen an influx of tourists in recent years
That money, most of which is being administered by VisitScotland on behalf of the Scottish Government, is being ploughed into marketing campaigns focused on encouraging both domestic and international travellers to come to Scotland as well as funding a project that will look at how data could be better utilised within the tourism sector.
“Data has always been an issue in terms of forecasting and there’s a project there to set up a data observatory,” Roughead says. “That will enable [the industry] to use data for planning purposes, looking at supply and demand and the like.”
For many businesses these interventions will have come too late. Yet, while coronavirus has been a disruptive – and destructive – force like no other, Roughead says he is confident that the Scottish tourism sector, which has recovered from damaging events in the past, will be able to do so again.
Having joined VisitScotland as director of marketing during the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, he then led the organisation through the aftermath of the global financial crash and knows what a sector-wide recovery looks like.
COVID-19 may have been unprecedented in its scope and scale, he says, but with the summer holiday season coinciding with the lifting of many pandemic-related restrictions the sector is already showing signs of starting to bounce back.
“Initially it was people living in Scotland who were holidaying in Scotland, but now there’s more demand from south of the border,” Roughead says.
“Not every sector is benefiting from that. In rural and island areas there’s strong demand for self-catering or camping holidays but cities have been really hard hit. The amount of traffic that comes into cities for business events, festivals, cultural events is hugely significant. We have to really focus on trying to support cities as things open up.”
Although there is a sense that this year’s staycation boom may be short-lived, Roughead says domestic UK travellers have always been the mainstay of the Scottish tourism sector, accounting for around 65 per cent of all overnight stays in the lead up to the pandemic.
Yet in the summer of 2019, when the industry recorded its highest-ever overnight expenditure at £5.8bn, growth was being driven by international visitors.
It is an area VisitScotland is looking to focus on to help fuel the recovery, working with partner organisations in other countries to make sure their citizens can access information on everything Scotland as a destination has to offer.
“International visitors stay longer, they go to different parts of the country and they come at different times,” he says. “We have to try to make sure that people keep Scotland top of mind, which is what we are doing. We’re making sure that people are aware that when they can eventually get here they will have a great time.”
That does not mean everything is going to be plain sailing from here. Staffing issues in particular are causing a headache for many tourism businesses, with the ending of free movement of people from the European Union and the so-called self-isolation ‘pingdemic’ creating shortages across the hospitality segment of the industry in particular.
For some, that has meant not being able to open at all during by far the busiest operating period the industry has seen in two years. For others, it has meant opening for shorter periods and trading on an unprofitable basis.
“Staffing has been an underlying issue for some time but it’s come to the forefront partly because of COVID and partly because of Brexit,” Roughead says.
“We would like to see some kind of exemption being put in place that allows European staff to be able to come in and work in the industry. There’s already a temporary worker visa scheme for people coming to pick berries and we’re making representations [to the Westminster government to be given something similar]. It’s not just an issue in Scotland, but in places like Cornwall and Cumbria as well. If we can all come together to find a solution we will all benefit.”
Other, well-documented, problems have been brewing for some time in tourist hotspots such as the Highlands and the Isle of Skye, where indigenous populations have complained about high numbers of visitors putting a strain on local amenities and blighting local communities.
For VisitScotland, that means trying to encourage people to come to the country at different times, not just the summer, and cast their destination search beyond the most popular locales.
“We need to make sure people know they can come for the whole year and also try to disperse people to as many areas as possible so all local communities can benefit,” Roughead says.
“The best tourism experience is one where the community owns it and delivers it. We have to make sure that we work with communities so they feel safe and part of the solution, and that they benefit not just economically but socially.
“We need to make sure that tourism puts back more than it takes out; responsible tourism is about creating better places for people to live, work and visit.”
Ultimately, though, Roughead believes these challenges can be overcome and the industry can return to the high-growth position it was in during the summer of 2019.
“I’m always an optimistic person,” he says. “I’m not blind to the challenges – I can see those – but I see the resilience of the industry.
“I joined VisitScotland in the middle of foot and mouth and I’ve seen businesses come back. That doesn’t detract from how painful this has been for many, many people but I have seen a lot of creativity and there’s a real will and drive to get back on track.
“We’re coming off a really strong platform in 2019 and if we get a fair wind we can recover pretty quickly.”
This article was sponsored by VisitScotland.