A MAJOR campaign has just been launched to get foreign tourists back on holiday to Scotland – and it could hardly be more timely.
VisitScotland’s new initiative aims to ensure Scotland is ‘at the forefront’ among potential vacationers in key markets such as the United States, Germany and France when considering vacation plans in the months and the years to come.
This is the opening salvo in what appears to be a difficult and time-consuming attempt to rebuild the Scottish tourism industry in the wake of the devastation caused by the pandemic.
There may well have been a significant – and welcome – surge in stays this year, but talk to experts in the tourism industry and they’ll tell you that wasn’t enough to make up for the continued lack of significant numbers of foreign visitors.
And what makes their absence even more felt is the fact that foreign tourists spend more than domestic holidaymakers.
Statistics show that before the pandemic, visitors to Scotland from the United States and Europe spent four times and twice as much respectively as their British counterparts.
This is not because UK tourists are overly parsimonious: the domestic market tends to be short-term based and confined to unique places. In contrast, foreign visitors tend to stay longer and spread their expenses across the country.
Vicki Miller, Director of Marketing and Digital at VisitScotland, highlighted the urgent need to address this issue in an interview with The Herald last week. Although there was “some very early recovery” in parts of the market, she said it had not been felt by businesses that depend on foreign visitors, including cultural attractions and tour operators that cater to. foreign tourists.
The recently announced relaxation of the UK testing regime for people arriving from non-redlisted countries should help, but the market will not immediately return.
“We know there is pent-up demand because people haven’t been able to do it (travel from overseas to Scotland),” said Ms Miller. âBut we also know that if you travel a little further on vacation, you’re going to take the time to plan it. It won’t be an overnight decision to come all of a sudden from America to Scotland, or even some of our major European markets. ”
Ms Miller’s claim that the recovery has yet to kick in in parts of the tourism industry was quickly bolstered by a major investigation last week, which laid bare the lingering difficulties facing the attractions industry. tourism.
The Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions, which represents more than 240 organizations spanning more than 500 sites, found that in the first half of September, revenue fell by more than 50% in more than one third of the destinations compared to the same period in 2019.
He also revealed that almost half of the industry (47.5%) had seen a drop in visitor numbers of more than 50% this year, again compared to 2019.
Based on these findings, it was no surprise to hear ASVA state that there has been no travel boom this year, at least in terms of its market share.
“The pandemic has had a truly devastating impact on Scotland’s tourist attractions and these latest findings provide further evidence that this impact is still being felt,” said Managing Director Gordon Morrison. “I cannot stress enough that, despite a number of reports to the contrary in the media, there has not been a ‘stay boom’ or widespread economic recovery for our industry this year, and we are facing a very difficult winter period ahead. ”
The problems facing Scotland’s tourist attractions are not just due to the lack of overseas visitors. Like the broader tourism and hospitality sector, they are also held back by a chronic staff shortage, linked both to Brexit (which ended the huge advantage of free movement between the UK and European Union) and the ramifications of the pandemic.
In a context of generalized staff shortage, the ASVA survey revealed that less than half (48.1%) of the sector is currently fully open, while 40.9% of outlets operate with working hours. reduced or limited capacity. More than one in 10 attractions remains closed.
“Tourism, like many other industries in Scotland, has been hit hard by the loss of EU workers as a direct result of Brexit,” said Professor John Lennon, director of the Moffat Center at the Caledonian University of Glasgow , who carried out the survey for ASVA.
âThe ability to adequately and securely staff operations has become the next insurmountable challenge. ”
Unfortunately for tourist attractions and many other businesses in the tourism and hospitality industry, there is no way the UK government will address these real concerns.
Although a small number of temporary visas have been granted to allow companies to hire heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers from the EU, it seems highly unlikely that such a benefit will be granted to tourism and travel. hotel.
Instead, we now have the Conservative government’s rhetoric this week that businesses are “drunk on cheap labor” and that the current shortages of people, goods and fuel that we are seeing are due to a lack of planning for the end of free movement.
One imagines that this will be a particularly bitter pill to swallow for many businessmen who have warned for years that Brexit will bring precisely the kind of chaos we are witnessing now, and who have received little practical advice from the government. UK government on how to prepare for the country wrested from the single market and customs union.
For Marc Crothall, managing director of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, this dismissive attitude ignores the relentless efforts of his industry to prepare for the “exodus” of staff triggered by Brexit. This, he said, ranges from supporting employees to achieve stable status to companies offering increasingly attractive compensation packages at a time when resources are stretched to the limit.
âThe industry has focused on improving employee benefits and compensation for many years,â said Mr. Crothall. âCompanies are raising wages to the highest level they can afford; now many are offering 30% more than two years ago.
“They’ve focused on work culture, benefits, health plans, pension contributions, work / life balance – we’re at a point where we can’t do more.”
In Mr Crothall’s view, the UK government’s accusation of ‘cheap labor intoxication’ shows’ how far Boris Johnson et al are from the reality facing business .
“There is no value in a government blaming business with a ‘you could have done more’ attitude,” added Mr Crothall. âFrankly this shows how far the UK government is from its understanding of the potential of the sector and its ability to make a meaningful contribution to economic recovery, to our supply chain and to the very real and intense challenges that face business owners every day. ”
If the UK government does not start issuing temporary visas to help the hotel and tourism industry alleviate the staff crisis, there are other ways to help. Trade bodies are now backing calls for a freeze on value added tax at the current temporary rate of 12.5%, instead of being reduced by the government to its pre-pandemic level of 20% in April.
Given the persistent challenges facing the industry, this seems like a logical step that could help companies stay competitive. Indeed, some countries on the European continent show that lower VAT rates can generate higher tax revenues, mainly because they make bars, hotels and restaurants more competitive and more attractive to potential customers.
Unfortunately, this British government seems to lack logic when it comes to keeping this most important industry in good health.