Mike Cantlay: Sustainability should be embraced as Scots tourism's magic asset

FOR the Scottish economy, tourism is without doubt vast and vital: £4 billion turnover, 20,000 Scottish businesses, employing more than 200,000 people. However, as a nation, Scotland struggles to get its mind around tourism.

Tourism behaves quite unlike other industries. As we saw last year with the "staycation" effect, it has extraordinary resilience. The industry itself has ambitions to grow tourism rapidly over the next few years. Yet we struggle to put our finger on how best to unlock that potential. Are we missing something?

In my view, Scottish tourism does enjoy a magic ingredient, which I suspect we are failing to recognise: long LONG-term sustainability. And this might very well be the year we learn to appreciate it.

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During 2010, Scotland will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Sir Walter Scott's writing of The Lady of The Lake. Although primarily a cultural celebration, success of Scott's iconic poem led to thousands of tourists visiting Scotland to see the majestic landscape of the Trossachs. These intrepid visitors were among the first tourists anywhere in the world, and Scotland has been a global leader in tourism ever since. This recession might well have been the worst since the Wall Street Crash, but take your hat off to Scottish tourism that has prospered for 200 years, despite world wars, depressions and growing competition.

Yet, as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Scottish tourism, the "billion-dollar" question has to be, how about the next 200 years? To survive in business long-term, one must differentiate. And boy does Scotland have unique icons to exploit: our cities, our islands, our festivals, our music, arts and culture, our food, more than 250 castles, Loch Ness, Loch Lomond, Tattoo, Hogmanay, Burns, whisky, tartan, golf – the list goes on.

What's more, successful tourist developments are by design long-term assets. The steam ship Sir Walter Scott on Loch Katrine has just been refurbished after her first 110 years, and now she's ready for the next.

I could name hundreds of tourist developments, many of them recent creations designed for modern tastes, yet still assets I would expect to be prospering in 200 years' time. And, indeed, with care some, like our golf courses, could be earners for Scotland plc in perpetuity. So take today's 4bn revenue and imagine the vast and growing earning capacity of our tourist industry across the entirety of its life cycle of hundreds and hundreds of years.

But not so fast. If you think these bounties will simply fall at our feet, then you are mistaken.

I believe the next few years will be a defining period for Scotland's tourist industry. Firstly, in addition to the rapid growth of other industry sectors, as a nation we must appreciate that tourism is, will be and, indeed, has to be the very bedrock of the Scottish economy for generations to come. Secondly, Scottish tourism's differentiating icons must be protected, and adding environmental sustainability to those USPs is vital to success. Thirdly, we must recognise that encouraging investment in the quality and value of our existing product, while also attracting new tourist developments and initiatives, is crucial. Further, our goal must be to lead the world in harnessing developments in technology and transport. Finally, we must market Scotland tirelessly to a world where competing tourist destinations will always be jealous of our success.

So, for my term as chair of VisitScotland, my determination will be that we inspire Scotland to secure the "step changes" that will propel our tourist industry forward. Indeed, my ultimate aspiration is that generations to come will not only see Scottish tourism as a great industry, but, indeed, as Scotland's greatest industry ever.

• Dr Mike Cantlay, is chairman of VisitScotland