Scottish tourism is being held back by complacency about knowledge of the country overseas, the head of VisitScotland has admitted.
Mike Cantlay said the industry was dogged by a belief that the “world knows about Scotland and wants to come” when the reality was very different.
Mr Cantlay cited China as an example of a country that still knew little about Scotland other than whisky, tartan and the Loch Ness Monster.
He said there was poor appreciation of tourism’s importance to Scotland’s economy – but insisted it represented the country’s best prospect for financial recovery in the short-term.
Mr Cantlay said he believed investment in new facilities for the Commonwealth Games, as well as a host of major infrastructure projects in rural areas across Scotland, should be the envy of Europe.
And he predicted Scotland’s ambition, confidence and ability to host major events would be transformed after next year.
He told The Scotsman: “It is not easy out there in the industry, it is tough for everybody across the country. We have been unlucky, with winter storms and summer storms in the last couple of years, but we are now so well placed to move forward, when the rest of the competition is struggling.
“Now is the time when we have to make the impact. We have this period, with these events, to create the momentum to set us up for the second half of the decade. We want to reposition Scotland on the world stage and gain market share against our competition.
“At the end of the day, if we want to change perceptions and reach around the world, we need to better understand the consumer and what’s important to them.
“People seem to think that the world knows Scotland. Really? The knowledge of Scotland amongst this new generation, where there is so much noise and technology, particularly in the emerging markets, is far more limited than people would think.
“In China, for example, everybody knows about Edinburgh, everybody knows about golf, but it’s just one course in St Andrews, everybody knows about whisky, tartan and the Loch Ness Monster, but then it becomes very patchy.
“We are complacent. We have all these wonderful icons and we just assume that the world knows about Scotland and wants to come.
“That’s why we have to seize the opportunities that come with the likes of the film Brave. Every market the film was distributed in was dubbed into the relevant language.”
Ahead of Scottish Tourism Week, starting today, Mr Cantlay said parts of the industry were still struggling to realise that the benefits of the Ryder Cup and Commonwealth Games coming to Scotland in 2014 would be spread across the country.
Mr Cantlay will be spearheading the launch of the “Scotland Welcomes the World” campaign this week, which he said was partly aimed as a “call to action” for tourism businesses to get ready for a huge influx of visitors next year, when the second Year of Homecoming is also being held.
He added: “What we are launching is not about us telling the trade what we are going to be doing for them, it is a call for action for the industry to take it seriously.
“I hope the industry becomes much better at explaining how much things have developed over the last ten years.
“I don’t think Scotland has appreciated the strength that we have achieved. Scottish tourism will never be quite the same again after next year, with the new facilities that will be available, and the ambition and confidence we will have to be able to bid for big events, conferences and conventions.”
VisitScotland estimates the current value of the tourism industry to Scotland at about £11 billion.
Although the key domestic market – including visitors from England and Scots taking “staycations” – was down 1.5 per cent last year, according to the latest results, the overall figure, including overseas business, was up 3 per cent in the 12 months to September last year.
Mr Cantlay added: “If you speak to most people in the street and ask them what will be the foremost driver of the economy in the next 12 months, you won’t get a lot of people saying it’ll be the big events or tourism. It almost inevitably is.
“Tourism is the very bedrock of the economy.
“If we get it moving forward, in the very short term, it has to be the tool to help the economy. What else is so big and so achievable in such a timescale?”