THE chief executive of VisitScotland has hit out at Conservative plans to deport foreign students as soon as they have graduated.
Malcolm Roughead told The Scotsman he strongly disagreed with a pledge made by Home Secretary Theresa May to crack down on immigration by sending foreign graduates back to their home countries.
He said tourism is “in the top three” industries for Scotland and was last valued at £11.6 billion before last year’s Commonwealth Games, Homecoming Year and Ryder Cup.
He said it needed support to make it easier for people to come from abroad.
Mr Roughead said: “Our message is everybody is welcome. In terms of the number of international students at universities once they finish it opens up a whole new diaspora. I see them as being future influencers in the industry.
“I want to hold on to them, I want to make them feel welcome, I want to make them feel part of Scotland and then they become an asset.”
With immigration policy making it more difficult to get visas to visit the UK, Mr Roughead also called for further changes to prevent people being put off visiting as tourists.
He added: “We want to see things made easier. I think there are initiatives under way to do that, but we will have to see what the results of that are.”
At Westminster last month Mrs May defended her policy by warning of the numbers of students expected to come to the UK by 2020.
She claimed her overseas student migration policy was based on attracting the “brightest and best” from around the world and that student visa applications had gone up in 2014.
However, she added: “But we also have to recognise that the latest surveys also show that 121,000 students came in from overseas while only 51,000 left in that year and that by the 2020s we will see 600,000 overseas students each year in this country.”
Highlighting the importance of tourism to Scotland, Mr Roughead said that the “visitor economy” is worth millions “cascading down” to other sectors and highlighted the benefits of tourism to other industries.
According to VisitScotland figures, tourism last year accounted for £95 million of wines and spirits sales in Scotland – 81 per cent of the total.
In other areas tourism boosts the sale of biscuits by £15 million, 35 per cent of the national total; confectionary by £168,000, 24 per cent; soft drinks by £14 million, 60.1 per cent; and accountancy services by £9 million, 10 per cent.
According to a recent report by Deloitte, tourism in Scotland accounts directly for 292,000 jobs, which is estimated to rise to 306,500 jobs by 2020. Mr Roughead said: “There are more people employed in tourism in Glasgow now than were ever employed in the shipyards.”
With air passenger duty about to be devolved to Scotland heralding potentially cheaper flights, Mr Roughead also identified the agency’s “airport hub strategy” of creating new air routes to Scotland as vital for boosting visitor numbers.
He said: “We have been making it easier to get to Scotland by air.
“That’s why we have worked closely with Emirates through Dubai, Turkish airlines through Istanbul and Etihad starts up this year.
“We are already seeing the effect of that in terms of increased numbers of visitors from Australia, India and China. And also we have opened new routes from North America such as United Airlines from Chicago.”
However, he insisted that new routes had to be done through “prioritisation” and “must be sustainable”.
According to recent figures released by VisitScotland, Scotland saw record numbers of visitors in the first nine months of last year, including a 37 per cent increase from the USA.