PLANS to transform Scotland’s tourism industry could see it outstrip key sectors including oil and gas and financial services within a decade, according to industry leaders.
On the eve of the annual Scottish Tourism Week, experts have set out proposals to embrace new technology and put historic rivalries aside to boost income from an industry that is currently worth more than £12 billion to Scotland’s economy.
Tourism leaders believe the sector needs to shed its image as an option for school-leavers who have performed poorly in exams and encourage more women into an industry said to be “male-dominated” at senior level.
Other innovations predicted to have a transformational impact include ensuring Scotland is at the forefront of the use of driverless transport developments and taking more events overseas, like the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo’s recent tour in Australia and New Zealand.
New campaigns to promote some of the country’s most remote landscapes and ensuring visitors are able to use the latest digital gadgets when they get there are also being seen as increasingly important.
Dr Mike Cantlay, outgoing chairman of VisitScotland, who is stepping down after six years, said Glasgow and Edinburgh combining forces could be the biggest thing to propel growth to allow tourism to become the most important sector of the economy for the first time.
He said: “I always look for the biggest hits that make the most profound change. The single biggest transformation, that is creeping day-by-day, is the coming together of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
“The two cities are getting closer and closer from a tourism perspective. The two cities are totally different, but the transport times are coming down minute by minute. There is now no real distinction between where you stay and what you do between the two cities.”
Dr Cantlay said the advent of new long-haul air routes and high-speed rail were key over the next few years, but added that other new innovations could also become crucial.
He said: “Driverless technology is so fascinating. Who would have thought there would be an expectation of the Chancellor announcing driverless truck tracks on motorways.
“We have driverless technology for planes and trains. There are now trials of driverless cars. That technology is eventually going to kick in. Think of the impact that could have in Scotland. That would be a total transformation from a tourism perspective.”
Marc Crothall, chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, said: “If we don’t get the digital piece of the tourism jigsaw right and accelerate the process of connectivity into the industry we are really going to be left behind.
“We still have 25 per cent mobile phone coverage across Scotland when more people own one than a toothbrush. We have the worst 3G coverage in the UK.
“The modern-day traveller expects the basics to be in place, so that they can get connected, tell the story of their trip and use online apps. They want to have free wifi access in every hotel. We cannot offer that yet.
“We have a fantastic portfolio of assets to attract conventions here. If people cannot do business here at the same pace as they can in other parts of the world then we’re at risk of not being that destination of choice.”
Mr Crothall said the industry had to get “the monkey off its back” by transforming the image of working in tourism and hospitality.
He added: “There is still a perception of a career in our industry being associated with failure. Tourism needs to be positioned as a career of choice, rather than as a career of default.”
Stephen Leckie, chief executive of Crieff Hydro, in Perthshire, said: “There is still a real issue over finding people with the right skills and of the right quality, who are willing to work in the evenings and at weekends.
“We are getting better at making it much more attractive. We are a much more professional industry now, you get the right tools to do your job, and get looked after properly. You’re not treated the way you used to be.”
Dr Jane Ali-Knight, who runs the “Destination Leadership Programme” instigated by Edinburgh Napier University, said: “I think tourism does have the potential to be the number one industry in the next 10 years. A lot of will depend on what happens with oil, but you only have to look at what has happened in places like Dubai.”
Susan Russell, chair of the new Women in Tourism group, said: “In an increasingly competitive marketplace Scotland needs to remain at the top of its game in the next decade.”
“We need to be leaders, not followers, constantly innovating and experimenting with new ideas and technologies to ensure we’re the destination of choice both at home and abroad. “As a male-dominated sector at a senior level, it can be difficult for women in tourism to have autonomy to progress and expedite ideas.”