Niche markets in tourism can be exploited

The winter skiing season was a boon for the Scottish economy. Picture: Allan Milligan
The winter skiing season was a boon for the Scottish economy. Picture: Allan Milligan
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Time to change tack after failure to hit targets, says Andrew Martin

To steal the punchline from that iconic advert for lager; tourism, it refreshes parts of the economy other industries cannot reach. Think of all the successful festivals in places such as Kinross, Beauly, the Borders, the winter skiing which has kept Braemar busy, and then the coaches of visitors on the A9 distributing pounds, euros and dollars to the Scottish economy.

The number of overseas visitors to Britain peaked at 32.8 million in 2007, and by 2010 had fallen by nearly 10 per cent to 29.8 million before an upturn began in 2011, continuing through 2012 and into 2013. The story behind the decline and gradual return to growth is not a straightforward one, with the number of leisure/holiday visits having grown, while business tourism has fallen during the three years to 2010 before partial recovery in 2012.

The Next Decade: A Tourism Framework for Change (Scottish Government, 2006) set a growth target for the tourism sector of 50 per cent by 2015 and, having failed to achieve even 5 per cent growth by 2012, it is widely accepted that this target cannot be met without significant change in the tourism industry and linkages with the public bodies and education sector that supports tourism (VisitScotland, 2012).

Now, despite tourism being the second highest income generator in Scotland, we don’t really take the industry seriously. Against the target set nine years ago the Scottish tourism industry is under-performing.

This shouldn’t be the case. At the launch, in June 2012, of the Scottish Government’s new tourism strategy Tourism Scotland 2020, the outcome of extensive industry consultation, reflected a new model of partnership between the Scottish Government and the tourism industry and is supported by the Tourism Leadership Group, Scottish Tourism Alliance and the Tourism Intelligence Scotland project. The new strategy represents a significant platform from which to develop an industry viewed as lacking capacity in and connection to the skills, education, training, leadership, research and knowledge exchange that will stimulate innovation.

There is a clear demand for better connectivity between the industry and further and higher education to fill the skills and knowledge gaps – but what does this mean? Robert Gordon University plays its part by providing successful careers for graduates from our courses in tourism, events and hospitality.

That said, across the country there is not enough connection. Higher education and further education could do more for the tourism industry, and in turn the industry could provide more resource for education. It is unlikely that in the UK we’ll ever replicate the financial support American universities enjoy courtesy of business.

There is a realisation that Scotland can never be a mass tourism destination, nor can we compete and win on price. We’re expensive. Our prices are relatively high, our wages rates are relatively high, and it’s costly to move around the country. Growth will come from competing (and winning) in premier priced niche markets. But success in selling premier-priced tourism products is dependent on high-quality service. In 2014 our tourism product can be outstanding. It can also be dreadful and this is a real problem for those marketing the country; we’re consistently inconsistent. This is a management problem, not a skills gap.

In 2014 and beyond, tourism ICT platforms need to be applying next generation entertainment technologies to enhance the tourism experience for physical and digital visitors. New products, services and business models, already developed in the digital entertainment and social media sectors will need to be applied to manage visitor experiences, and to motivate continued participation with online services. There’s an opportunity for industry and education collaborators to devise new experiences and products.

Perhaps there’s a case for mandatory management development and training as part of a licensing process? If the carrot offered by enterprise initiatives fail, then perhaps a stick would force up standards. This does smack of a back-to-the-future scenario re-inventing the Tourist Board levy. Or could a centrally funded project work with firms, public agencies and third sector groups at a local, regional, and national level to develop models of partnership working that integrate policy, strategy and practice? Creating the structural conditions for effective strategy implementation is a worthy prize.

Converting what is the right strategy and the right ideas into Scottish tourism being more successful is a challenge. The new breed of professional managers leaving our universities will play their role, but we’ll most likely still only have pockets of good practice. Realising the required consistency of a high quality delivery will require a joined-up approach (and action) with the appropriate interventions.

There is an opportunity for visionaries in the private and public sectors to work together and make a difference, but above all as a nation of tourists, tourism providers and voters we have to wake up to the potential of Scotland’s greatest industry – and back it.

• Andrew Martin is the director of the Scottish Centre of Tourism at Robert Gordon University


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