Michael Kelly: Scottish tourism performing below par

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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Despite some unique advantages, industry bosses fail consistently to capitalise on this country’s potential, writes Michael Kelly

IT FEELS particularly good to be a golfer this morning. Not only have the bunkers dried out, not only has summer run on the fairways arrived at last, not only are the greens fast and true, but we have been given credit for contributing £1 billion a year to the economy. Through devoted passion to our obsession we support 20,000 jobs. Our 240,000 golf club members keep their 597 courses in the superb condition that is so well regarded internationally.

Yet the optimistic picture presented to the Golf Business Forum in St Andrews this week, disguises the difficulties. Many are struggling to maintain membership numbers. As young people find it increasingly less attractive to pay rising membership fees, the age profile of many clubs is rising inexorably to unacceptable levels. Clubhouse income was first affected by the drink-driving rules and now finds it difficult to compete in price and quality with the many fine city centre eating places on offer.

While new facilities like the immaculate Trump course add significantly to our golfing infrastructure, one wonders where our traditional clubs will be left if the projected £1bn of new golf projects are delivered. Pay and play rather than membership of the local club may be the route golf is forced to follow.

Given that golf annually attracts £120 million in tourism value the health of the industry must also be of concern to those promoting Scotland as a visitor destination. In the recent past there has been some disappointment in the way that golf has been sold internationally.

One remembers advertisements for Irish golf at major televised events in Scotland and pondering why our tourism bosses had allowed another country to get the jump on us when we were the ones acknowledged as the home of the game.

To grow our golfing visitor trade poses a challenge with such cut-price competition on our doorstep. Yet this is one of the visitor sectors where we hold a natural advantage. Many of our courses are of world renown. Teeing off at St Andrews is like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon: single putting in the shadow the Turnberry lighthouse is the equivalent of the Taj Mahal by moonlight. That’s something to sell. Add to that the showcases of this year’s Open at Muirfield and the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles and we can rightly expect soaring figures from our tourism organisations.

Certainly tourism resources should be concentrated on this and other sure-fire winners where Scotland has a recognised comparative advantage. On the face of it, ancestry tourism would seem to be one. Millions of people worldwide believe they are descended from Scots. It is a pitiful performance that we can attract only 213,000 each year to pore over parish records. The gloomy news is that the success of Scotland’s Homecoming 2014 celebrations is further threatened by the belated discovery by VisitScotland that we are unlikely to be able to meet the planned for five-fold increase in genealogical tourism next year. It was always over-ambitious to expect revenue to rise from £100m to £500m in such a short time scale. And it was such over-optimistic estimates that led to the disaster that was the 2009 Gathering.

However many reorganisations of public sector bodies there are, however good our intentions, we do not seem to be getting tourism right. We do seem to have chosen the right sectors on which to focus – this year VisitScotand has gone heavily on promoting our “breathtaking scenery and heritage” – not a bad choice if one had been able to see it through the May rain.

But so many opportunities seem under-exploited. And that is because very often we do not offer the correct range of products. It is not always in our own hands. Ayrshire enjoyed a brief boom in Swedish golfers until Ryanair cut its Scandinavian services into Prestwick.

But there is more we can do. Visitors come to play the Open courses. Could packages not be devised to encourage them to extend their stay by playing other local private courses? Could some kind of shuttle service be developed to move visiting golfers, whether coming in through tour companies or under their own steam, between a group of adjacent courses? You could play a weeks’ golf without moving out of Glasgow. Not as attractive as challenging Carnoustie, but cheaper with more available tee-off times and much more supplementary evening entertainment for “the little lady”. A sexist joke, yes, but golfing parties tend to be made up exclusively of male golfers. Why not a joint offer which caters to both partners’ tastes? You’d double your visitors that way.

Again, our genealogical heritage is undisputed as is the interest and the demand. But it seems that we have not developed the “software” infrastructure properly to cater for it. Dr Bruce Durie, chairman of the Ancestral Tourism Steering Group for Scotland, has claimed that “Scotland is absolutely the best place to research family history – we have so many records, and so much online, that it’s a genealogist’s dream compared with other places.” And this view has been the basis for many an optimistic forecast. However, further examination suggests that much of the data is not particularly easy to access. Little of it is joined up and there are few trained staff either nationally or locally to assist those seeking to establish earlier generations of their families.

As has been the case so often in the past, Scotland has gone off half-cock, promising and promoting an offer that isn’t truly there yet. Much of the private tourism sector abhors the intervention of government. However, the creation of an easily accessible database and geographical directions based on what visitors discover is a matter for the public sector. Genealogy has been such an obvious growth area for the past ten years that it is a scandal that greater progress has not been made in making it simple for visitors. “Could do better” has been the consistent assessment of Scottish tourism performance for many a season. That hasn’t changed.