There has been much to celebrate this year for the Scottish tourism industry: “spectacular” growth in international visitors; record numbers at the National Museum of Scotland; soaring passenger totals at Edinburgh and Glasgow airports; high-profile hotels and restaurants opening in the capital – and so the list goes on.
These milestones reflect the investment being made by the operators and industry bodies to attract visitors.
Overseas tourism to Scotland increased 10.8 per cent in terms of trips and 19.4 per cent in expenditure for the 12 months to June 2017, according to Office for National Statistics figures released by VisitScotland in October.
“It is magnificent to see such spectacular growth from international markets,” said VisitScotland chief executive Malcolm Roughead.
“Such major growth from our international markets can be attributed to increased, targeted marketing activity in key North American and European countries, favourable exchange rates, increased capacity on flights and the Outlander effect which has taken the country by storm since the release of the popular TV series.
“Domestically, the day trip and holiday market is booming in Scotland, with a rise in visitors by 9.3 per cent and 4.6 per cent respectively in the first six months of the year,” he added.
At Edinburgh airport, 1.27 million people passed through the terminal doors in October, up 8.5 per cent on the same month last year and breaking the 1m visitor mark for the seventh month in a row.
At Glasgow airport, October’s passenger numbers were up 5 per cent at 928,264 and at Aberdeen, they were up 4.4 per cent at 284,456.
The port of Invergordon has welcomed more than 149,000 passengers from 93 cruise ships this year – a 45 per cent increase in passenger numbers.
Meanwhile Orkney saw 135 ships arrive, delivering 113,085 passengers, which is up 14.5 per cent from 2016. In the Forth, Leith, Rosyth and the anchorages received 108 ships and about 125,000 passengers.
This buoyant picture is reflected by Scotland’s visitor attractions – the museums, historic houses, distilleries, science centres and animal parks.
“We, as an industry sector, are doing relatively well at the moment,” says Eva McDiarmid, chief executive of the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions.
“Our most recent research – we do it every month – says that every region is showing an increase – some bigger than others, but there is no one [region] that is down on last year and that has been the pattern throughout this year.
“Edinburgh is leading the pack: the city has four sites that attract more than 1m visitors a year and most of them are seeing growth.”
One of those four “millionaire” attractions, the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street, broke the 2m visitor mark in November – for the first time since it opened 150 years ago.
However, McDiarmid does temper her optimism: “I am being slightly hesitant because you never know what’s round the corner and there are concerns because of Brexit.”
“We are hearing from various – specifically larger – sites that the current weakness of the pound which, of course, we know is related to Brexit happening or not happening is making us more attractive as a destination with Scottish and English visitors but not necessarily overseas [visitors].
“Anxiety is too strong a word; maybe concern because we aren’t getting any clarity on the direction of Brexit.
“We are at a crossroads and we don’t know which road we are going to be heading down. So it is hard for people to put plans in place.“
For the attractions sector, the concerns are around losing key EU staff.
McDiarmid says: “We are employing people who are directly facing the public, so we need the highest standards of fluency in English as well as their own native language.
“We also need to have all the social skills that go with welcoming visitors.
“If some of them decide they are going to leave, then there will be problems filling the gaps.”
With 30m visitors in 2016 to the ASVA sites (excluding the country parks), McDiarmid points to one of the factors which often generates growth.
“When we see people doing really well it is on the back of a special ‘blockbuster’ exhibition.”
The National Museum of Scotland highlighted its major exhibition on Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites as one of the drivers behind it reaching its 2m visitor milestone.
Admittedly, the museum has also undergone a massive investment over the past decade, with increasing numbers of visitors enjoying the new art, science, fashion, design and technology galleries which opened in the summer of 2016.
For the museum’s 150th anniversary, it displayed more than 3,000 objects including the Galloway Hoard, Britain’s biggest single discovery of Viking treasures, and a 2,000-year-old mummy’s shroud, the highlight of a crowd-pleasing exhibition of Egyptian artefacts.
McDiarmid points to another example of an exhibition which has had a major impact in widening the appeal of an attraction.
“New Lanark has been saying that its Lego Brick City exhibition was fantastic.
“It brought not just young people, but very young people, across the threshold.”
Attracting families as visitors not only boosts numbers, it hopefully sows seeds for the future.
As MacDiarmid says: “There are opportunities for us to do more in trying to attract young people into the industry.”
That’s an important point when we look forward to 2018 as the Year of Young People.
A £2m programme has been developed to mark the year, which has been instigated by the Scottish Government to put people aged eight to 26 centre stage.
A team of young ambassadors has joined forces with EventScotland, the national events agency, and nearly 40 festival and event organisers to create the line-up.
It all kicks off on 30 December when young people link up with the National Theatre of Scotland to create a country-wide festival.
After that young people will play key roles in a variety events, including the opening of Dundee’s V&A and Moat Brae in Dumfries, the Edinburgh International Film and Book festivals, Glasgow Comic Con, Taste of Grampian and the Orkney International Science Festival, to name just a few.
On the horizon, the opening of the V&A is probably the most-anticipated event of 2018. “There is going to be huge interest in the V&A and that will attract people from London and the rest of England,” says McDiarmid.
“It may well attract people from other countries in Europe. Dundee isn’t that difficult to get to once you land in Scotland. Also it’s only 20 minutes away from St Andrews.”
Looking ahead, McDiarmid says we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the cruise ships. “You wouldn’t imagine it ten years ago: people coming in like that,” she says, highlighting the benefits for Loch Ness of the ships calling at Invergordon.
However, as the fame of Scotland’s remote places spreads on social media and the internet, there is the issue of capacity to cope with.
This summer, Skye and the North Coast 500 route have made headlines due to the crowds of visitors.
For the islands as they increase in popularity, McDiarmid notes a different issue: “One of the barriers to growth is the finite capacity of the ferries.”
An eventful year
Some of the highlights in the tourism calendar for 2018 include:
The widely anticipated V&A Museum of Design Dundee will be the first dedicated design museum in Scotland. Part of a £1 billion investment in the city’s waterfront, it will be the only V&A museum outside London. The eye-catching building will tell the remarkable story of design past, present and future in a Scottish and global context, as well as the processes that underpin great design and the beautiful and inventive objects which tell that story.
Opening on 24 March, the Kirkcudbright Galleries will celebrate the town’s unique artistic heritage, through a dedicated permanent exhibition gallery. It will explore the history of the artists’ colony, including why the Dumfries and Galloway town was – and still is – a desirable location for so many artists and creative people.
Linking in neatly with the Year of Young People, Moat Brae, the childhood playground of JM Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, will open to the public. The national centre for children’s literature and storytelling will be a place which promotes and encourages imagination and creativity. The attraction will include visiting exhibitions, interactive rooms and a discovery garden.
Scotland’s largest winter music festival celebrates its 25th anniversary. The two-week programme will reflect its hallmark multi-generational breadth, internationalism and cross-genre spirit.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh
The 150th anniversary of the birth of Glasgow’s great architect and designer will be marked by a major exhibition celebrating his work. Little-seen Charles Rennie Mackintosh objects will go on display at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. There will also be a fully conserved tearoom, the Oak Room, in the V&A Dundee.
The 100th anniversary of the birth of Muriel Spark will be marked with a series of events which includes talks, exhibitions, readings, publications and screenings. Led by the National Library of Scotland and Creative Scotland, it celebrates the author best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
This article appears in the WINTER 2017 edition of Vision Scotland. Further information about Vision Scotland here.