Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
by Staff reporter
24 August 2020
Associate feature: Back in business for VisitScotland

Image credit: Holyrood magazine

Associate feature: Back in business for VisitScotland

The Scottish tourism industry has weathered storms before.

There was the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, which prompted visitors to stay away. There were the 9/11 attacks the same year, which disrupted international aviation and caused alarm among travellers. There were previous public health alerts, such as avian flu.

But they don’t compare to the sheer scale and depth of COVID-19.

Malcolm Roughead, who marks ten years as chief executive of VisitScotland next month, recalls the moment when he and his colleagues realised the industry was about to face a “major, major event”. It was February and the world’s biggest tourism trade fair, ITB-Berlin, was cancelled. Shortly afterwards, following numerous cancellations by nervous attendees, VisitScotland called off its own Expo scheduled for April.

The agency had already set up an internal crisis unit and now quickly convened the Scottish Tourism Emergency Response Group, bringing together COSLA, the Scottish Government, the enterprise agencies and the Scottish Tourism Alliance.

“At that stage, no one knew how long this was going to go on for but we knew it was going to be incredibly disruptive,” he says. “Probably we thought it was going to be a couple of months.

“Now here we are in August wondering how long this is going to go on for.”

That “major event” turned out to be the greatest challenge the industry has ever faced.

Roughead doesn’t mince his words, declaring that the impact has been “catastrophic” for businesses. “Tourism was the first sector to be hit and to a great extent is one of the last to come out of it,” he says. The job losses have affected not just seasonal employees but full-time workers too, with much anxiety surrounding what might happen when the government’s furlough scheme ends in October.

Some businesses, especially small ones, have been “staring into the abyss” after shutting last September for the season, being closed over winter and missing four precious months of trading this year. Meanwhile, the live events industry is still on ice. “We’re in the middle of what would normally be a very vibrant, positive, upbeat festivals and events period,” says Roughead. “Automatically we think about Edinburgh but a huge number of events take place the length and breadth of the country. Think about the Wigtown Book Festival, the Pittenweem Arts Festival, the Highland Games: none of that’s happening.”

VisitScotland set up an Events Industry Advisory Group after realising early on that the sector had no body of its own to champion its cause.

And yet in spite of all this, there is hope and a sense of momentum returning.

“The turning point was being given dates when different parts of the sector could start reopening,” says Roughead. “It’s very difficult, when you’re in a big black tunnel and you don’t know where the end is. Then suddenly there’s a wee bit of light and it gives you something to aim for. Psychologically for people in the industry, that’s very, very important.

“You’ve got your North Star and you can aim for it.”

Out of crisis comes innovation and Roughead admires the resilience that he has witnessed. Certain artisan food and drink providers, shops and cafes, for instance, managed to keep trading at a reduced level by promoting online sales or changing from being wholesalers to doing door drops. Then, once the pandemic’s first wave subsided and in keeping with the Scottish Government’s strictly phased plan, small shops resumed trading at the end of June, with other businesses reopening in July.

Some sub-sectors, such as providers of self-catering accommodation, have been experiencing high demand as Scots and other UK tourists opt for a staycation, something VisitScotland has been heavily promoting.

Confidence is also returning among the customers of shops, cafes and restaurants. This is helped by Good To Go, an industry-standard mark of assurance that businesses can use to show visitors they are adhering to government guidelines on safety, developed by VisitScotland and the other Visits in the UK.

VisitScotland has also developed the Visitor Charter, to encourage people to behave responsibly while out and about in Scotland.

So does Roughead feel optimistic?

“I’m an eternally optimistic person,” he acknowledges with a smile, but he makes clear his positivity is about more than temperament: “I think it’s tough times still ahead, we’re not out of this yet, there are still elements of the industry to open up, such as aviation and the events sector, but I take heart from 2019: 2019, in terms of revenue generated by overnight stays, was the best on record for Scottish tourism.

“The underlying strength of Scotland as a destination and the sector as a whole is there to be seen in the data.”

This mighty industry pulled in £5.5bn last year, from overnight visits, and has a value to the wider economy estimated at £11.5bn. So it was not struggling the way some sectors were going into the crisis. Given the chance, it will thrive again. Roughead talks of the pent-up demand overseas to come to Scotland, particularly in the United States. That demand isn’t going anywhere, quite literally: if anything, it will build and build.

Businesses just need support to keep going long enough for the good times to return.

There is another phenomenon that Scotland is well positioned to take advantage of in the months and years ahead: “travelling with purpose”. This is the growing trend globally, particularly among young people, to visit destinations which allow them to live their values. This means tourism that minimises its impact on the environment, respects natural assets and shores up local communities by supporting local businesses, such as arts and crafts, food and drink producers, rather than global companies.

In Scotland, the concept of “responsible tourism” is at the heart of the new ten-year tourism strategy developed by the industry in partnership with the Scottish Government and enterprise agencies, and announced in March.

Responsible travel is about maintaining the economic benefits of tourism whilst at the same time minimising any negative environmental and social impact.

The need for the tourist industry to do its bit to drive down carbon emissions and environmental harms is a big part of it but so is making tourism work well for local communities. Places like Skye have experienced the downsides of heavy tourism in recent years, with roads becoming clogged with traffic and verges strewn with litter.

Roughead believes the recovery from COVID will be important in enacting the responsible tourism vision. “The big opportunity for us is really to reset tourism,” he says. “I actually think coming out of this we can accelerate some of that activity.

“Communities are at the heart of that. Businesses are obviously part of communities, but people need to feel they can see the benefits that tourism brings.”

The provision of amenities like toilets and parking in busy places is critical. Nearly three years ago, a Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund was announced to identify tourism pinch points and act to mitigate those pressures, and it has been funded to the tune of £9m so far. Roughead adds: “The more and more popular Scotland becomes, the more we need to get ahead of the curve rather than only fix the problems that already exist.”

But the immediate focus for VisitScotland is getting businesses operating again and the signs on that score are promising. “We know that self-catering, campsites and static caravans picked up business very quickly, which is great to see. It would be fair to say there’s still a lot more to do to help drive occupancy in hotels in the cities.

“That’s an area we still need to push hard because a lot of the things for visitors to see and do are not operating at the moment, but where they are, such as Camera Obscura in Edinburgh, we can see real demand.”

VisitScotland has undertaken regular survey work throughout the crisis, tracking sentiment among businesses, consumers and communities. In early June, it found that nervousness about the return of visitors was higher in more fragile communities – those with less in the way of infrastructure nearby – mainly because of concerns about being ill-equipped to cope should problems arise. But Roughead says the data shows sentiment has “definitely softened” since then, which he attributes to the effort that has been made to communicate with local people, including them in the process of deciding when to reopen and explaining what measures tourist businesses are taking to keep them safe.

“People are growing more confident in visitors coming to their area. I think as the weeks and months pass we will get back to a position where the level of confidence will be, maybe not quite the same as it was pre-COVID because that threat is going to hang around us until we get a vaccine, but I think they’ll embrace it much more.”

And it won’t last forever. Eventually normality will return and this crisis too will be consigned to the past.

“People want to come to Scotland,” says Roughead. “The message is if you can, that’s great, you’re welcome back. If you can’t? We’ll see you soon.”

This piece was sponsored by VisitScotland.

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Read the most recent article written by Staff reporter - Police submit Operation Branchform report to Crown after Peter Murrell charged.

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top