Anger at VisitScotland's 'hijack' system

IN THE eyes of VisitScotland.com, the public-private website established to provide a national booking and information service, everything looks rosy.

Reservations in 2005 are up 20 per cent, visitor volume has doubled and 12 million of business was booked in 2005. The site, says VisitScotland.com's business development manager, Paul Wedgwood, is now the 20th most visited travel and accommodation site in the UK, and has "firmly established itself as Scotland's national bookings and information service".

Why then are so many of Scotland's grassroots accommodation businesses - mainly in the B&B and self-catering sectors - complaining? After all, for a 25 annual subscription fee their premises can feature on the VisitScotland.com site, complete with contact details, photos, website links and phone numbers, easily accessible to anyone web-minded enough to click through the two hyperlinks to find them.

The trouble is that, in the world of e-commerce and the immensely competitive tourism industry, every required movement of the mouse means substantial lost revenues.

In the eyes of VisitScotland's critics, information on how to book direct with the destination provider, which is not given equal prominence to the 10 per cent fee-generating link to the webmaster's virtual cash till, is in effect being "hidden".

The issue is the latest complaint from the Scottish tourist business over the ambiguous commercial status of VisitScotland.com, which, it is claimed, is making life difficult for small operators and interfering with long-established service provision and customer relations.

Centred on Scotland's south-west, an increasingly vocal and well-organised lobby of hospitality businesses across the country is claiming that VisitScotland's preferential signposting of a fee-earning booking centre in Livingston is especially inappropriate for a private business that is propped up with public money and calls itself Scotland's national tourism and booking centre.

Alan Keith is chairman of the Association of Dumfries and Galloway Accommodation providers (ADGAP), which has established an alternative website, VisitDumfriesandGalloway.com. He claims to represent nationwide grassroots content, and he says VisitScotland.com's claim that it is "a fulfilment mechanism for VisitScotland's marketing, to drive business all the way down to small scale businesses" is a nonsense.

For understandable commercial reasons VisitScotland.com is seeking to divert potential customers, who would otherwise have had a "deposit-free" direct engagement with the B&Bs themselves, to do their booking through an operator that lacks essential specific knowledge, Keith said.

However professional the operators might be, the result, say the critics, can not equal the old system, where web users were put in direct contact with the businesses themselves.

Keith said: "Driving people down to small businesses is what used to happen on the old Scottish Tourist Board VisitScotland website. This is not a business that benefits from the intervention of a third party.

"The implication of VisitScotland's website is that businesses want to be booked via the call centre. The direct details of the businesses may be there, but the way that people use the site means in practice that VisitScotland.com are hijacking the traffic in order to pursue their freely admitted goal of increasing their own profitability."

One B&B operator in Stirling said: "I am not against profit, but I am against deception. This system is a form of taxation for us, saying you can have your business, but it will cost you 10 per cent."

TAKING THE TOURIST TRAIL TO PROFITS

VISITSCOTLAND.COM is the trading name of E-Tourism Ltd, set up in Livingston in 2003 as a public-private partnership with funding of 7.5 million, including 4.4m from Schlumberger Sema, later sold to French IT giant Atos Origin.

Tourco, an amalgam of the now disbanded Scottish tourist boards, provided 1.85m, with 1.1m from Partnerships UK, an offshoot of HM Treasury. E-Tourism claims that it is not a publicly funded body because it receives no ongoing monies, and that the public cash was a loan, which it has been repaying since last year at 10 per cent interest.

E-tourism's turnover last year was 2.3m, with administration and operating costs of 2.1m. The company hopes to become profitable in 2007.