Wish you were here, as visitors fall

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THE number of tourists visiting Scotland's biggest cities fell last year, according to new figures.

The news came as the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced that the number of visits to the UK as a whole dropped for the first time since 2001, the year that saw the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The ONS recorded the number of tourists, the nights spent and the amount of money spent by visitors to UK cities.

Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews all saw significant drops in at least one if not all areas.

However, Perth and Stirling rose into the top 50 for the first time, reaching 47 and 46, above St Andrews, which sank to 48 from 44 in 2007.

Prof Joe Goldblatt, tourism expert at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, said that any downturn was likely to be temporary.

He said: "Tourism, historically, is the most resilient of the industries. Leisure has always been prioritised by people as part of their health. People can only go so long without a holiday, and while the template may change – people are favouring 'staycations' at the moment – they are still wanting to travel."

Prof Goldblatt said the Homecoming event was likely to help boost 2009's figures further.

"Around the world, we can expect tens of thousands of people from the Scottish diaspora to come home," he said.

He added that figures for the third quarter of this year would be the acid test in terms of Scottish tourism.

A spokeswoman for VisitScotland, the country's national tourist board, said that the figures reflected a global trend.

"The overarching reason for the decline in visitor numbers in 2008 can be attributed to the economic downturn and uncertainty within the marketplace," the spokeswoman said.

"So far in 2009, Scotland is performing well against the rest of the UK. We recognise that the current economic climate continues to pose huge challenges for tourism worldwide. However, we have seen some positive signs in Scotland and there is a mood of cautious optimism."

The spokeswoman also said that the Homecoming campaign was expected to have a measurable impact on Scottish tourism figures.

Despite the downward trend, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce yesterday highlighted positive changes for tourism businesses. Although visitor numbers were down, the fall was not as sharp as in the previous two quarters.

Occupancy rates actually rose from 54.5 per cent to 71.5 per cent although the chambers said there had been heavy discounting of room rates.

The encouraging signs in tourism led to an increase in optimism among firms, taking the measure to its highest rate for 18 months

Liz Cameron, the chambers' chief executive, said: "The sharp decline in the Scottish economy over the previous nine months appears to be coming to an end and there are more encouraging signs across most sectors."