Next year’s Glasgow Games and Ryder Cup will provide a fantastic opportunity to show off our many tourist attractions, writes Michael Kelly
Scotland should be on the edge of a golden era of tourism. Next year’s Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup – one shown throughout the Commonwealth, the other across the world – give us sturdy platforms on which to present the most attractive elements of our country.
There are a number of objects standing in the way of converting these events into a long and continuous flow of visitors. But the constitutional uncertainty that goes with the holding of a referendum is not one of them. Scotland is a politically safe and stable country. If anything, the drama of the vote might well increase the frisson of excitement tourists enjoy.
The fact that Scotland won these events in the first place endorses the quality of our tourism assets and infrastructure. Scotland would not have been chosen for either if the organisers had not been confident that we had the facilities and the expertise to carry them off successfully. In terms of the Ryder Cup, most Scots golfers would prefer that it was played over a more typically Scottish and less boring 18 holes than the American-type PGA course at Gleneagles. But the Ryder Cup is organised mainly by the players, not the Royal & Ancient; and as such it goes to the resort making the highest bid, not the best course. How else could the unique Old Course be overlooked?
Again, the Commonwealth Games are not on the scale or significance of the Olympics. However, we are glad to have got them. It makes Glasgow’s task as host to the Games much harder now that London is acknowledged to have held a most spectacular event. Glasgow is going to be judged harshly against London in a way it would not have been if it had followed, say, the Athens Games. But Scotland should have no problem besting the washed-out Wales and Dublin in putting on a well-organised golf tournament. Here, according to golf widows at least, it never rains on the golf course.
The evidence is that Scotland does have its public sector support for tourism well organised. One may long for the days when Alan Devereux in his gaudy tie paraded himself as chair of the Scottish Tourist Board. But the current VisitScotland is a much more professional body in all respects. It recognises, I hope, that Scotland is a series of niche markets. It can never expect to be a mass destination like the Costa Brava or Miami. And to continue to attract new and returning visitors, these niches must consist of world-class offers.
Many seem to succeed despite this. Gretna offers the chance of quick and easy marriage. But is there anything romantic about the place? Certainly, you cannot get fed outside regular mealtimes. “Chef off,” I was told last year.
In many places, potential is not being realised. Shetland, despite the challenges of remoteness and cost of access, is working hard to exploit its best bits. For a start it has caring hoteliers. It concentrates on birdwatching and archaeology and has a wonderful museum. Many more complacent regions could learn from it.
Glasgow too offers a lesson. No-one in the early 1980s would have believed that this old manufacturing city could have made an industry out of visitors. But it did, and it has the continued investment in public infrastructure – such as the Hydro entertainment venue and the new upmarket hotels – to prove it.
Not before time has Loch Lomond National Park discovered that it has badly neglected its asset for years. World-famous, the loch is only occasionally visible from the road that runs its length. There are issues of private ownership of this public asset which must be brutally resolved in favour of the common good, but the park authority has shown ineptitude in developing its unique asset. Those who have visited American national parks, such as Yosemite or Monument Valley, know that tourists can be accommodated in their millions without destroying the natural beauty of these places. A clean-out of the boards of the Scottish equivalents would be an excellent starting point for improving our visitor offers.
In times of recession, and the UK could well be in a triple dip when next year’s great events are taking place, holidays can be the first to suffer. That is one reason why it is good that Mike Cantlay of VisitScotland is determined that Edinburgh and Glasgow pool their tourism assets. The traditional rivalry has never got in the way when co-operation was essential, but a positive strategy to seek events which both cities can accomplish better together offers much more potential for Scotland than ad hoc arrangements. There is to be a reduction in train travel times between east and west. What is equally important is that the current funereal procession of cars on the M8 is speeded up by the expansion of the motorway into a three-lane highway in each direction. Then, of course, there is the A9 – a disgrace for any country offering its highland wilderness as a visitor attraction.
An overall assessment of Scotland’s visitor industries must mark them as “satisfactory”. The performances of a number of sectors such as conferences and culture would be marked up to “very good”. But, as many domestic tourists will confirm from their day-to-day experiences, there are other sectors which fail on ease of access, on value for money and, in particular, on service. Despite this latter factor being highlighted year after year, there are still too many enterprises which take the customer for granted rather than as a precious perennial plant to be nourished to flower again next season.
The industry as a whole supports 200,000 jobs and generates £4 billion for the Scottish economy. Given the fragmented nature of the industry, its businesses and its products, it is essential that strong central control is exercised over its standards. It is, therefore, worth spending a lot of public resources to ensure that next year’s gilt-edged chances are exploited to the full. We cannot afford to drop the ball.