Three years to save the future of Scots tourism

Stirling Castle is among the top Scottish visitor attractions
Stirling Castle is among the top Scottish visitor attractions
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SCOTLAND is in danger of missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “change the face of tourism” in the country over the next three years, the industry’s figurehead has warned.

The head of the national tourism agency issued the stark warning after revealing he had secured almost £30 million in additional funding to help promote Scotland on the back of forthcoming sporting and cultural extravaganzas.

Tourist chiefs believe spin-offs from the London Olympic Games, Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup and a new Disney film offer an unprecedented “honeypot” – but only if they are capitalised on.

VisitScotland chairman Mike Cantlay said: “I am appealing to the tourism industry to help us grasp this opportunity – from the smallest B&B to the biggest resort hotel.”

VisitScotland claims the industry is already set to benefit from an extra £2 billion worth of infrastructure improvements in the next few years, due to major projects such as the new V&A Gallery in Dundee, the new Bannockburn visitor centre and Donald Trump’s golf course in Aberdeenshire.

Mr Cantlay said the industry might live to regret failing to capitalise on what he has dubbed “the Winning Years” if it failed to cash in on a chance to “change the face of tourism in Scotland.”

He wants business to start planning now on how to benefit from the eagerly-awaited Disney/Pixar animated film Brave, which is released next year, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and the Ryder Cup in 2014.

The Winning Years initiative is to be launched formally at the Scottish Parliament tomorrow, just weeks after it emerged that spending from overseas visitors was down by 17 per cent in the first half of this year, contrasting sharply with a 5 per cent rise across the UK.

However, the number of UK visitors to Scotland went up 6 per cent from January to June, with domestic spending up about 13 per cent.

VisitScotland’s plans have been unveiled days after it was revealed that the umbrella body for Edinburgh’s festivals was seeking another £11.5m over the next three years to boost the profile and audience of the money-spinning events.

Mr Cantlay admitted the industry was at a major “crossroads” this year, insisting it had been outperforming many European rivals in withstanding the impact of the economic downturn, but was also in danger of failing to make the most of a three-year sporting and cultural bonanza.

He told The Scotsman: “We need to make tourism the hero of the Scottish economy – with everyone understanding its size and potential over the next three years. This is about benefiting everyone in Scotland – not just the tourism industry.

“This is about catching the moment – every public sector body, every business and every member of the Scottish population needs to be on board to be able to deliver this growth.”

Creative Scotland, the Scottish Government’s arts agency, has already been awarded £6.5m to help fund special events next year as part of a 12-month campaign to promote the creative industries to coincide with the London Olympics.

Other projects have received separate Lottery funding to become part of the Cultural Olympiad, including Speed of Light, an Edinburgh International Festival show on Arthur’s Seat, the creation of a giant football pitch in the Borders and a spectacular outdoor classical concert in the shadow of Stirling Castle.

VisitScotland has been given an extra £8.4m next year, on top of its £40.7m core budget, as well as £49.5m in 2013-14 and £50.3m the following year.

Mr Cantlay said: “We have been consistently resilient as an industry over the last three years, despite everything we’ve had thrown at us, such as the volcanic ash problems, two bad winters and the wider economic downturn, which has caused major problems for tourism in other countries.

“I believe we could see a profound sea change for the industry over the next three years if we take advantage of the Winning Years. We could be on the verge of something special, but it needs everyone pulling together.

“We don’t want to be sitting here in 2015 wondering why we didn’t make the most of the London Olympics or the Commonwealth Games, as we’re never going to get those events staged in such close proximity again.

“We need to take advantage of the fact that the south of England is going to be pretty much full when the Olympics are on and encourage people to come here as an alternative.

“Brave is a great example of something that can be huge for the industry. It’s a film people will be watching for years afterwards, much like Toy Story. We’re working very closely with Disney, but businesses should be thinking about what new products they could develop to tie in with the film, for example.

“I don’t think we’ve made the most of the Royal Family before now, but next year could be huge for places like Balmoral with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.”

The tourism industry in Scotland is thought to be worth more than £11bn a year, supporting about 200,000 jobs.

Mr Cantlay said his organisation had calculated that £2bn worth of investment was planned to be delivered over the next three to four years.

“There are major improvements happening all over the country at the moment, not just in Glasgow, where the new Riverside Museum opened this year, or in Edinburgh, where the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is about to reopen,” he said.

“I’ve recently been to Shetland, where the new Mareel arts centre is going to be absolutely fantastic, there are major improvements taking shape in John o’ Groats, and the V&A Gallery in Dundee is well advanced.”

Tourism minister Fergus Ewing defended the extra funding for VisitScotland, saying the next three years offered “huge opportunities” for the industry.

“We wanted to ensure that VisitScotland could properly take advantage. VisitScotland has very much taken the lead but we have three ministers, including myself, working on the various aspects of the Winning Years because of their importance.

“We believe it’s been hugely important over the last few years to keep investing in new world-class facilities for visitors here. You can already see the impact of the commitment to the V&A with the interest from developers in that area in Dundee now, even though work on the gallery hasn’t started yet.”

Robin Worsnop, chair of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, denied suggestions there was any complacency about the next three years, and said many businesses were focused simply on surviving.

“The challenge for many people is keeping going at the moment, particularly in the more rural areas, because of the rising costs of running a business, and it’s becoming more difficult to survive for many people.

“There are big threats out there like the eurozone crisis and if there is a complete collapse of the euro it could have a devastating impact on the industry.”

The most recent tourism figures for Scotland, released last month, showed that the number of overseas visitors was 78,000 down during the first half of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010, a drop of 8 per cent.

VisitScotland admitted it was “surprised” by the slump in overseas visitors, but said the figures almost certainly reflected the global economic downturn.

Industry figures said one welcome sign was that the number of visitors from North America had increased by 7 per cent in the first half of the year.