I like to think of myself as a glass-half-full kind of fellow. Doom and despondency are my natural enemies, hope and optimism my watchwords.
So it was a pleasure to find a great deal more of the latter in evidence at the SECC in Glasgow as the annual Scottish tourism “Expo” rolled into the city. The event seemed noticeably busier and buzzier than of late. Buyers from 40 countries turned out and an impressive amount of business was being done.
The travel trade fair also provided a timely reminder of major things to come, from the Helix in Falkirk, the V&A in Dundee and the new Bannockburn visitor centre, to the visit of the Ryder Cup.
Two beleaguered organisations of recent months, Creative Scotland and Marketing Edinburgh, had a high-profile presence, while Historic Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the National Trust for Scotland were also out in force, showcasing the ongoing “Year of Natural Scotland”.
But there was an inescapable dark cloud hanging over the Expo. VisitScotland chairman Mike Cantlay’s admission that the previous 12 months had been the toughest since the global financial crisis exploded five years ago was pretty frank.
He probably had a good inkling of what was to arrive at the end of the week with the latest national tourism figures, which showed overnight visits to Scotland down 4 per cent in 2012. That admittedly doesn’t sound too bad – but that market is worth well over £4 billion.
A loss of 600,000 visitors in a year is not a drop in the ocean by any measure. And there seems no disputing that 2012 simply did not match expectations.
Not so long ago, it was being hailed as a potential saviour of the industry in Scotland, with predicted major spin-offs from the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. Remember the concept of “The Winning Years”?
Twelve months ago, 2012 was also shaping up to be the year of Brave, with £7 million found down the back of the Scottish Government and VisitScotland sofas to piggyback on the Disney adventure.
But VisitScotland admits it could be 20 years before the full benefits of this tie-in are realised. That’s not much use to businesses in the Highlands struggling with soaring costs and tax bills, dwindling numbers of international visitors and off-putting fuel prices.
The Year of Creative Scotland and Scotland’s contributions to the Cultural Olympiad, which had at least £10m lavished on them, simply did not offset the impact of London 2012 to this observer. Audience numbers for shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe were way down when the Olympics were on. A major campaign to offset the damage was badly missing.
Factor in some dreadful weather and the wider economic conditions, and we had a perfect storm engulfing what we’re told is now Scotland’s most crucial post-recession industry.
It was difficult to avoid the impression this past week that more hard times lie ahead – despite several big-ticket initiatives planned in 2014.
New and uncomfortable questions are being asked privately over the sums of public money going into these: the next Homecoming, the Ryder Cup, the Commonwealth Games and the 700th Battle of Bannockburn anniversary.
A key issue is whether precious resources are being best deployed to help the tourism, heritage and cultural sectors – particularly in areas that suffered last year. Trying to pin down exactly how much public money is being spent and what it’s being spent on is like wrestling a jellyfish right now.
Creative Scotland says at least £5m is coming out of its budget, for example, but little is known of what this will go on.
VisitScotland is paying at least £10m to bring the Ryder Cup here, but is yet to confirm spending on related campaigns.
And the only reason the extra £1.2m cost of a huge concert just before the tournament has emerged is the tourism body has gone out to tender for the event.
That figure dwarfs the £250,000 ringfenced for the festival that Unique Events will stage to mark the Bannockburn anniversary, which has been dogged by wrangling and financial concerns. And it is double what was ploughed into the centrepiece clan gathering in 2009, an event which a private company was left to run to catastrophic effect.
Businesses teetering on the brink may well be justified in asking if the right balance of priorities has been struck.