The Rough Guide has listed Scotland among its top ten places to visit in 2017 and with the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology (YHHA) already well under way, there’s no time like the present to focus on promoting each town’s unique offering.
“A lot of towns in Scotland are significantly enhanced by visitor spend,” says Riddell Graham, director of partnerships at VisitScotland. “Tourism is a key part of the Scottish economy but equally we always talk about the three-legged stool of societal, economic and environmental impact.”
First, there is the social benefit which stems from visitors bringing money into an area which, in turn, enhances the experience for local people. After all, towns and villages account for 69 per cent of Scotland’s population.
If that is not done in a sustainable way, then it is not a long-term solution. In other words, it has to be able to work for the community. If a community or a town is swamped by visitors, that’s not sustainable tourism. Creating new footpaths or interpretations enhances people’s understanding and appreciation of the environment.
“If you get those three things right then the community benefits and the environment benefits.”
Annual research conducted by Visit-
Scotland looks at visitors’ impressions of Scotland before and after their visit, with many pleasantly surprised to find it doesn’t actually rain all the time.
“The scenery and the landscape is an attractor and that’s what people tell us all the time,” says Graham.
“Our history and heritage as well are right up there at the top. Not far behind is the people. When we launched our #ScotSpirit campaign [last year], we talked about the thing that makes Scotland just that wee bit different and it’s around the warmth of the people and the way that people are welcomed into our country.
“No matter where you go you will experience that spirit of Scotland. People are proud to share their locality with you and share their local stories.”
With nearly 500 towns and seven cities, it’s no wonder visitors gravitate towards them as a base for their holiday and the quality of what they experience during their stay is of vital importance in terms of the memories they take home with them.
“The role that a town plays is that it is a unique and special part of the visitor experience when they are in Scotland,” says Graham.
“The streets should be litter free, in summer there should be nice flower beds, there should be public toilets that are open and clean and it’s about shops having that local dimension. All this builds up to what the visitor experience is.”
Programmes are already in place which aim to improve Scotland’s tourism offering, including the support and resources of Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP) and Visit-
Scotland’s recently updated tourism development framework, which focuses on identifying investment opportunities.
“There is £16.5bn of investment going on at the moment in what we would call much-needed infrastructure,” explains Graham.
“A lot of that is in city deals and town centre improvement.”
VisitScotland’s themed years also have a strategic role to play in attracting visitors to Scotland to explore and discover its rich heritage and important archaeological sites.
“I have been going round all the local authorities in Scotland over the past couple of months and challenging them to say what their contribution will be to this year,” says Graham.
“I am asking them what they are doing to bring their part of the country alive in this themed year. Every council I have met is absolutely up for the challenge and they have all got several stories to tell that will make a visit to their towns compelling.”
There is no secret formula for ensuring Scotland’s towns retain their attraction as long as their representatives keep abreast of what visitors are asking for, and the spotlight is on improving the digital agenda.
One project in the pipeline at VisitScotland is to identify sources of user reviews online – such as TripAdvisor – and speak to those companies to find out what visitors are saying about the places they visit.
It’s a case of asking the questions; how good are the transport links; what are visitors saying about the accommodation on offer; what about the retail offering; are we getting positive feedback on the eating out experience?
The way visitors are making decisions about where to stay, what to see and do and where to eat and drink has been transformed by digital technology.
Staying connected throughout the journey and on arrival at your destination has become almost essential to any trip.
“The days of needing a brochure in your hand or looking for the local tourist information office are fast disappearing and more and more people access all they need – if they can get a signal – on a mobile phone or tablet.
“That change in the way that people make decisions and access information has a huge impact on how towns need to present themselves.”
Wi-fi in hotels and self-catering properties is a must-have and increasingly towns and cities are looking at installing it in all public spaces. Auchterarder in Perthshire is leading the way on digital connectivity with the installation of superfast broadband and wi-fi zone in the town, with plans to extend this to surrounding areas.
Likewise, good mobile phone coverage in and around towns is absolutely crucial in terms of servicing the needs of visitors and the expectation of connectivity is only going to increase.
Graham quotes a phrase used regularly by the team at VisitScotland: “Travellers want to live like locals.”
“I think that really neatly sums it up. We should be constantly investing in things that make a town or a village or a community unique and special.
“Equally, locals want the best for their community and their towns. We need to get it right on both sides.
“We absolutely need to remain in tune with what the customer is telling us.
“The visitor and the consumer is changing so quickly that if we don’t move in tune we will be left behind.”
Town and tourism
Towns and villages account for 69 per cent of Scotland’s population.
In 2015, just under 14.9 million overnight tourism trips were taken in Scotland, for which visitor expenditure totalled over £5 billion.
In 2015, overnight visitors from the UK took 12m trips to Scotland and spent nearly £3.3bn.
International visitors to Scotland took nearly 2.6m tourism trips in 2015, spending just under £1.7bn.
124m day visits were taken in Scotland in 2015, with a total spend of £3.9bn.
“Holiday” was the main purpose of trips to Scotland for both domestic and international visitors during 2015.
Among domestic visitors, English tourists took the most overnight trips to Scotland, while the largest overseas market was the US.
The Scottish Government aims to improve the visitor experience in Scotland and achieve annual visitor spend of between £5.5bn and £6.5bn by 2020.
The Scottish Borders has seen a 20 per cent boost to visitor numbers since the 30-mile, £350m Borders Railway opened in 2015.
Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford House just outside Tweedbank reported an 18.4 per cent increase on 2014 visitor numbers.
Digital Tourism Scotland is a three-year programme worth £1.2m which will support Scotland’s tourism businesses to become more digitally ready.