Imagine what tourists considering a visit to The Highlands this year think of our beautiful rural landscapes. Our mountains and our glens. Our exceptional welcoming hospitality and our keenness to show them how proud we are of this land. That’s what we’ve done as Scotland’s premier tour operator for the past 20 years. In that time, we have greeted tens of thousands of tourists wishing to see all this wonderment from the warmth and safety of a coach tour.
Visitor numbers to Scotland have escalated in recent times, in no small part to what’s been happening to the exchange rate. Strong foreign currency and a weaker rate of sterling has helped make overseas visitors look to maximise their stay here in every way possible.
Scotland as a destination is being promoted much more effectively. International passenger arrivals increased close to 14 per cent through Edinburgh Airport. The combination of effective marketing and improved connectivity creates the opportunity. The exchange rate provides an added incentive and we saw the results. It is no secret that international travellers, keen to explore our county and experience our culture spend considerably more in our restaurants and hotels, products and services than domestic travellers do, providing a significant injection to the local and national economy.
Picking out China as just one area of growth; Chinese tourism is growing by around 15 per cent per year without a direct air route to Scotland. Now Chinese carrier Air Hainan is looking to secure a twice-weekly flight to and from Edinburgh from June this year. This will provide a massive fillip for our tourism industry. The huge potential for growth is abundantly clear and the Far East market is one of the biggest spending markets in the world.
However, what impact does this have on our infrastructure and where does future investment come from? Tourists from all over the world, including a significant number of Chinese tourists, flocked to Skye to see the Fairy Pools and other notable landmarks. News reports suggested that Skye was groaning under the weight of tourists. The media was in a frenzy about “over-tourism”.
It was reported that the roads and car parks on the island were unable to cope with this unparalleled level of tourist influx and effectively – the “Skye is Closed” word got around. It wasn’t of course, but its popularity and that of other areas such as our close association in many areas of the country with television series like Outlander and Game of Thrones and of course the Glenfinnan Viaduct made famous by its appearance in the Harry Potter movies, does mean that our country needs to consider how robust our infrastructure is in order to cope with these rising levels of interest. Film tourism is now big business. Moreover, from the days of James Bond and even Monty Python to the current crop of blockbusters, it all helps to promote our natural assets and attractions abroad. Indeed, the likes of Linlithgow Palace, Midhope Castle, Doune Castle, Callendar House and Hopetoun House have all experienced incredible interest due to the popularity of Outlander.
Whilst the issue cannot be ignored, the term “over-tourism” for me suggests a negative. Should we not be considering how we get in front of this this to make the most of the opportunity for the benefit of all?
It seems the increasing demand has pretty much been left for local authorities and residents to address without appropriate resources. Both the local and national economy benefits through employer and employee contributions. However, local authorities do not have the national perspective, budgets or resources available to deploy and provide some of the investment required.
This is a Scottish issue and needs Scottish Government support in delivering much needed infrastructure improvements and strategic planning for the future, or it will be an opportunity missed with worsening experience for both the locals and the visitors.
This isn’t a parochial issue. It affects all of Scotland.
Gary Voy is Founder/Director of Timberbush Tours