Return journey: Scotland’s travel sector is looking to the new tourism minister for help with its recovery
In May’s reshuffle, Ivan McKee found his ministerial title brief tweaked slightly, with Nicola Sturgeon shifting him from minister for trade, investment and innovation to minister for business, trade, tourism and enterprise.
Though the change to McKee’s letterhead might be minor, the change to his responsibilities is fairly substantial.
According to a Scottish Government report from 2018, spending by tourists in Scotland generated around £11bn of economic activity in the wider Scottish supply chain and contributed around £6bn to Scottish GDP, about 5 per cent of the total.
In 2016, 207,000 people were employed in the sector, or almost one in twelve people employed in Scotland.
And then, in 2020, the pandemic arrived.
On the day Holyrood met McKee, four organisations – the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions (ASVA), Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers (ASSC), Wild Scotland and Sail Scotland – published a survey of their members.
It made for grim reading.
ASVA’s survey, undertaken in partnership with the Moffat Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University, was completed by 178 organisations representing over 350 visitor attractions.
It revealed that 71 per cent of the sector had re-opened, however 90 per cent of these attractions have not recovered from the impact of the pandemic.
Less than one in four is operating at an economically sustainable level and 46 per cent of attractions fear their business will be unviable as long as physical distancing and international travel restrictions persist.
ASSC found that 32 per cent of self-caterers were operating at reduced capacity, 16 per cent simply breaking even, and a further 16 per cent being open but financially unviable.
Meanwhile, Wild Scotland reported that out of those surveyed across the wildlife, adventure and activity sector who can reopen, more than one third saw their futures as unviable, with 55 per cent operating at under half of their capacity.
Sail Scotland reported 80 per cent of charter and small cruise ship operators surveyed said they were trading at unsustainable levels under current guidelines. Around 87 per cent of respondents said a lack of clarity and direction by the Scottish Government around guidelines for the sector were having “a severe and crippling impact”.
The groups warned that some of Scotland’s most iconic attractions could soon close for good.
“These are not only the jewels of our £12bn tourism industry, they are integral to our culture, heritage and communities.
Their loss would be catastrophic for Scottish tourism and for Scotland so we must ensure we sustain them and secure their future,” ASVA Chief Executive Gordon Morrison warned.
Victoria Brooks, from Wild Scotland said more financial support was needed: “There is a real concern for the future as we head towards another winter following a second summer of restricted trading.
“This is a sector with significant potential to drive tourism recovery with the increasing popularity for nature and the great outdoors. However, to fulfil this demand we need the Scottish Government to step up and support these important sectors to ensure survival.”
McKee is under no illusion about the scale of the task facing him. The problems in the sector are, he says, “difficult, problematic and painful”.
“I mean, you talk to businesses in the sector and it’s not nice. I ran small businesses myself in the past and you can really feel for them,” he says.
Asked if he will “step up,” McKee says: “There’s been [Scottish Government] support: general businesses support and support that has been targeted at specific parts of the tourism sector, and that continues.”
But, he adds, given where we are with the virus, there is much still to do.
McKee says part of his role will, in effect, be to lobby on behalf of the industry within government and with the scientific advisors whose guidance through the pandemic is crucial to the steps taken by the first minister.
“What I’ve said to the sector is that there’s a couple of things we can do, we can listen to your challenges and take away specifics and feed that into the clinical team, the clinicians, so that that’s taken on board in their considerations.
“We can also undertake to come back to the sector with information on the data, the trends and the virus, the impact it’s having in all of those numbers so that they are aware of why things are what they are.
“I think we’re finding that there’s very much a willingness and an open door with the clinicians to listen, to understand. Are there specific tweaks that can be made when they punch through their model that doesn’t make a huge difference perhaps but it might make a difference to the sector?
“More substantive issues are what they are, but there are things around edges that make it easier. We’re very keen just to pick up on those and see what what we can do to mitigate.
“The reality is that this is one of the sectors that’s really borne the brunt of [COVID] because of the nature of what they do.”
Especially the international part of the tourism sector, McKee says.
Again, in the years before the pandemic, visitor numbers were up, thanks, in part, because of the fall in value of the pound post-Brexit.
In 2019, 3.46 million overseas visitors came here for their holiday. It was, according to Visit Scotland’s Key Facts on Tourism in Scotland, the best year over the last decade for international tourism expenditure.
On our slow inching towards re-opening and new normality, international travel is going to be one of the last sectors to get a look in.
Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, an assistant professor at Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute, says travel, especially wider international travel, “will only be back to something like normal towards the later stages of 2022 at the earliest”.
McKee refuses to be drawn over whether the government has a rough idea of when international travel might return.
“It all comes down to that whole dynamic round about what’s happening with the virus and not just what’s happening here, but what’s happening internationally as well, because if you look around the world the virus is doing as much damage as it’s ever done.
“We’re probably in a worse place now globally than it’s ever been. So understanding how that is moving, sure the vaccine’s helping, but that relationship between the number of vaccinations and the number of cases and the number that end up in hospital the number that end up in ICU, the number of fatalities, and long COVID as well, which is obviously is very real and very, very damaging.
“So, as the data unfolds on that and as the vaccine programme rolls out, the picture will become clear, but it’s too early to say with any certainty exactly how this is going to develop over the next period.”
His unwillingness to name a date is understandably stressful for those whose businesses rely on holidaymakers and their wallets, but the dilemma for ministers here – as it is with many decisions around COVID – is to either make cautious decisions early, which means a broad range of potential outcomes, or wait until the last possible minute, frustrating businesses which “want to know as early as possible where we’re going with things,” McKee says.
“There’s no easy answer to this,” he adds.
The minister’s keen to talk beyond the pandemic, at how the sector can develop, and fix the problems unrelated to SARS-CoV-2.
That includes everything from digitisation to labour shortages to tackling the infrastructure necessary to deal with the problems of so-called overtourism.
Remote communities in the Scottish Highlands are bracing themselves for a busy, busy summer. Campsites, hotels and B&Bs along the 516-mile North Coast 500 are already fully booked.
And while some locals are grateful for the economic boost, there are already fears over congestion, and mess left by “dirty campers”.
Last month, locals in Applecross were considering asking to be removed from the marking material used in the NC500.
Places like the peninsula need infrastructure to deal with the influx of visitors, but as well as investment that also means workers and that’s proving a real problem for the sector.
“I’ve been amazed how much of an issue that that is for the sector, considering we’re in a position where we’ve got concerns about what unemployment’s going to look like going forward but there’s a tight labour market at the moment.”
He adds: “I mean it’s a multifaceted issue because clearly COVID has disrupted the labour market to some extent, it’s hard to get a full picture because in this sector in particular there are still a significant number that are on furlough, and how that’s going to play out as that unwinds will be a bit of an unknown.”
McKee says the problem has been partly exacerbated by Brexit, but he says the government are also aware that the sector isn’t necessarily seen as an attractive place to work for young people.
And getting people to go work in rural locations means housing provision and infrastructure.
“We’re looking at working with colleges, and there’s already an awful lot happens obviously but we understand that there’s more we can do there, for them to be focused on supporting specific skills that are missing in the sector, and have we got enough in the pipleine there, is the more we need to do to strengthen that.
“So I think both of those, because there’s the labour availability in general, and then specific skills overlaid on top of that, and in both of those are things that we can do to work with the sector in trying to mitigate that as best as best we can.”
It looks increasingly like a busy if uncertain summer for much of Scotland’s tourism sector.
As for McKee himself: “I haven’t booked anything yet. With the new responsibilities everything has been really... just an awful lot to catch up and get on top off, but I think later in the summer, I’d like to get away somewhere in Scotland.”