THE Scottish Government has revealed that year-long themed tourism campaigns are set to continue indefinitely - as it predicted next year will be the “biggest ever” for the industry.
A major celebration of food and drink is likely to feature in the next set of “focus years” for the industry, tourism minister Fergus Ewing has revealed.
He said it was “sensible” to retain the strategy despite prolonged criticism of the 2012 Year of Creative Scotland, which was marred by rows over the running of the national arts agency, and concerns have been raised by efforts to promote the next Homecoming overseas.
Speaking ahead of the annual Scottish Tourism Week conference, Mr Ewing issued a rallying call for a “relentless pursuit of quality” across the industry to help it compete on a global level.
He admitted some parts of the industry were “not good enough” - despite its importance to the economy, as the single biggest source of employment - and said it was “essential” to improve standards.
But he said the themed campaigns allowed national agency VisitScotland to focus on some of Scotland’s main selling points, including its scenery, historic attractions and natural produce.
Mr Ewing said the value of the themed campaigns had been proven earlier this year after CNN Travel named Scotland as the world’s number one destination in 2013. This year is being promoted as a celebation of “natural Scotland”, with the country’s wilderness areas, varied landscapes and wildlife taking centre-stage.
More than £5 million a year has been ringfenced for the annual promotional drives, with the second Year of Homecoming due to be held in 2014 predicted to generate more than £44 million for the economy.
The first, in 2009, was dogged by controversy over its centrepiece clan gathering in Edinburgh, which collapsed into financial disarray after the event, leaving dozens of private-sector creditors out of pocket.
Much of the focus of next year’s celebrations will be around the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup being held in Scotland. However American clans were left upset after a planned gathering in Stirling has been shelved in favour of combining the event with celebrations to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.
Mr Ewing said: “The success of our strategy of focusing of some of the key reasons of why people come to Scotland was recognised at the start of the year by CNN, who picked Scotland out, from more than 200 countries around the world, as the top country to visit.
“If you look at what CNN said, it was because of the pro-active marketing by VisitScotland, exemplified by the themed years. They have singled us out as a country that is constantly reinventing the story of Scotland and restating the many attractions as to why people come here.
“It would be sensible to carry on the focus years. We are looking closely at options at the moment.
“Scotland will never be the kind of place where you will lie on the beach and get a suntan, but there are a huge range of attractions why people come here, to see remarkable scenery, to experience our growing standards of food and drink in restaurants and hotels, to visit our historic sites, and to play on our world-famous golf courses, and enjoy the experience of being in some of the most elegant and oldest cities in the world.
“Food and drink is one of the key areas that we want to focus on. It now features very highly in the areas that attract people to come to Scotland.
“Over the past couple of decades, we’ve finally got the message, that if we deliver quality food and drink to visitors not only can we make them happy but we also provide them with a reason to come to Scotland. It was not always thus. Scotland was not always seen as a country that provided high quality food and drink to visitors.”
Mr Ewing said recent research had shown that almost nine out of 10 visitors to Scotland had had a good experience.
But he added: “There are still some cases where it is not good enough. We have to be candid about that. Occasionally I get letters from people saying that they or friends of theirs have had bad experiences.
“We cannot and should not run every business, but we have to recognise that the pursuit of quality is important. We need a relentless pursuit across the board.
“Tourism is tougher in rural areas, there is no doubt about it, because you have got quite a long shoulder season, but in some areas like Orkney, they really have got their act together to promote themselves extremely successfully.
“It is a challenge at the moment. Having the highest air passenger duty, the highest fuel duty and the second highest VAT in the EU makes it difficult. These are not good for trying to attract foreign visitors to Scotland and it’s not good either for attacting more Scottish-based people because if it’s going to cost you £150 to refill your tank you might decide not to bother.”
Mr Ewing will be one of the keynote speakers at today’s Scottish Tourism Week conference at the Glasgow Science Centre, which will hear how almost a quarter of a million people are now employed in the tourism industry.
The event will also mark the launch of “Scotland Welcomes The World”, a campaign to persuade the industry to make the most of the huge influx of visitors expected next year for the Ryder Cup and Commonwealth Games.
Mr Ewing said: “Tourism is the largest industry in terms of the number of people that are employed. By that yardstick it is the most important industry. It is also important to just about every part of Scotland.
“Tourism has perhaps got greater potential to grow than any other sector in the world economy. Last year was the first time ever that there were a billion tourists. That figure is expected to nearly double in the next 15-20 years.
If we can pitch our message as one of the top destinations of choice in the world there is a potential market which is enormous. We can see that from the growing number of people coming from China, Brazil, Japan and many other countries where more people are now able to enjoy what we’ve perhaps taken for granted for most of our lives, in the form of a holiday.
“Building on the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup, 2014 will be the biggest ever year for Scottish tourism. It’s a challenge but I’m confident that the huge amount of planning and overseas work will pave the way for a series of great successes which will showcase Scotland throughout the world and help us build for future years.
Last week VisitScotland’s chairman Mike Cantlay said he was unconcerned about next year’s independence referendum putting off potential visitors from England.
He said he was confident Scots would be “fully welcoming” to the English next year, when the independence debate will see unprecedented media attention focused on the country.
Mr Ewing told The Scotsman: “We always welcome people from England, just as many people in Scotland, including myself, enjoy holidays in England too. Most people do not choose holiday destinations because of political considerations. I genuinely don’t think it will be a problem.
“The referendum itself will attract interest from all over the world, so it will actually bring people to Scotland, to witness the event, to take part in the excitement. It will also give Scotland more exposure than it has ever had, in the year when we are hosting more international events than we ever have. We will be on the world stage to a greater extent than ever before. There’s no such thing as bad international publicity. Our traditional markets will be unaffected.”