Only a few months ago we were digging ourselves out of snow drifts, but Scotland is now basking in sunshine. The heatwave has broken new records, sending the thermometer higher than in Barbados, California and even Africa. What a positive start to the season as we begin to welcome tourists swarming to the country. If the hot spell keeps up, we could end up breaking other records – with more visitors than ever before.
For Scotland’s increasingly important travel, tourism and leisure industry it’s an amazing boost, but there are downsides to the boom. Our infrastructure – particularly in remote rural areas – is creaking, placing pressures on communities and businesses.
Last year, we weren’t quite so fortunate with the weather, but tourism still managed to raise more than £11bn. That figure represents more than 4.5 per cent of the Scottish economy, highlighting just how important it is that we get things right and ensure tourists return and sustain a long-term vibrant sector.
While travel, tourism and leisure aren’t the biggest contributors to our GDP, there are a number of reasons why we need to value and support the sector. Developing a ‘brand Scotland’ helps our wider business community, enabling us to position the country as an open, welcoming and international nation. Employment is also a significant factor. Travel, tourism and leisure is one of the most evenly spread industries for jobs. At least 14,000 small companies play a major role in the employment of more than 217,000 people, from the Northern Isles to the Borders.
But with rising visitor numbers eager to travel to some of Scotland’s most remote locations, many areas are simply unable to cope with excessive pressure on roads and local public transport services.
To its credit, the Scottish Government has developed an action plan which comes fully into effect this summer. The Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund will see £6 million invested in a wide range of projects over the next two years. Communities are being asked to bid for their share of the money, which will be supported by local authorities.
Empowering local communities to identify their own challenges can only be a positive move, but there are questions over whether £6m is really enough to deal with a problem which has been allowed to develop for decades.
Let’s use the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund as a positive starting point. Local communities, business leaders, local authorities and national politicians need to collaborate more and find common solutions to widespread problems. We need a range of long-term solutions to greater year-round support to ensure that transport and other services are sustainable when visitor numbers drop in quieter periods.
Despite the concerns, there is a great deal to be positive about. The sun is shining and Scotland’s tourism, travel and leisure businesses are booming. From Dundee, identified by scores of publications as ‘the’ place to be in 2018, to the “Outlander effect” attracting fans of the global TV show, drawn to Scotland’s historic castles and dramatic landscape. Now, more than ever, is the time to embrace the opportunities created by our increasing global presence.
Let’s invest and innovate to create a sustainable, vibrant economy that serves Scotland well for decades to come.
• Diana Penny is Head of Travel, Tourism & Leisure in Scotland at Grant Thornton UK