Keeping the visitors coming

Keeping the visitors coming

Malcolm Roughead, Chief Executive, VisitScotland, elaborates on Scottish tourism’s journey over the difficult past two years and why things are looking up as new facets comin into play in the future.


Would you give our readers a general overview of Scotland’s tourism sector, highlighting some of the most recent key data to illustrate the strength and performance of the industry and its contribution to the economy (pre-COVID)? How would you summarize Scotland’s unique value proposition as a tourism destination?

Almost 220,000 people work in the industry. It accounts for approximately five percent of Scotland’s gross domestic product (GDP), which equates to nearly $15 billion of economic activity, including the wider supply chain. Prior to the pandemic, we were at a high in terms of volume with 17 and a half million overnight trips in 2019. We have an extremely strong domestic base which has proved to be invaluable over the last couple of years. These travelers accounted for just 14 million overnight trips out of the total, which means there were about 3.5 million international visitors. We also have a very strong day-trip base. Over 133 million day trips took place throughout the year. Because Scotland is very accessible in that you can get around very easily, it brings economic wealth to various parts of the country.

What we have been focusing on for a number of years now was trying to get a better balance between the U.K. and the international market by growing our international visitors. In fact, since 2011, we have increased international visitors by 17 percent. The largest of those markets would be the U.S. with almost half a million visitors, followed by Germany, France, and Canada. In the last few years, we have seen an increase in the number of visitors from China. A lot of that is related to the very large student base that we have in Scotland, particularly in Edinburgh and Glasgow. That brings people in because students’ families come to visit, stay and travel around the country. We have been looking at partnerships to diversify our offer for example agritourism which is very popular in parts of Europe in particular Italy. While agritourism it is still growing here, it is an area that shows great potential. During the pandemic, we also saw a lot of diversification among businesses as they began to move out from pure farming into a visitor experience, including live farms, animal observation, and then, of course, the food and drink aspect.

We are also very conscious that it is not just about volume of visits but also value. There has been an increase in expenditure of about 11 percent in the period between 2011 to 2019. About one in 12 jobs in Scotland are related to the visitor economy, similar to the level in New Zealand or Australia. Hence, you can see it is extremely important to the economy. It is one of the growth sectors identified by the Scottish government for future economic growth.

Also, just as important, it is about the sustainability of communities. Many of Scotland’s rural and island areas rely on tourism. In some areas, it can be as high as 16 or 17 percent of the GDP. It also provides an opportunity for local communities to flourish and grow allowing them to hold onto their workforce and the younger generations and to combat the migration away from rural to urban areas, which has been to the detriment of the sustainability of those fragile communities. Those communities are what makes Scotland so special.

Scotland clearly has an appeal for so many people in terms of its culture and heritage. We have welcomed everyone from Vikings to Romans and other nationalities from across the globe, and that has helped shape who we are. We very often talk about people, place and product. Every country can do that, but it is the mix and the way it is brought together that makes it so unique. Over the last decade, we have realized that it is very important to nurture and cherish that, albeit in an innovative way so that it is positioned through a digital offering. With the advent of social media, Scotland is reaching a whole new audience globally. That type of reach was simply not affordable through traditional methods of marketing and was impossible. We have been very much an early adopter of that type of communication and our strategy is focused on it.

We also have a very strong global reputation in terms of events. Through the sporting culture or business-related events over the last 15 years, we have been working diligently on positioning Scotland as the perfect stage. Obviously, COP26 was the biggest, but we have also hosted things like the Ryder Cup and the Solheim Cup in golf. We just won the hosting of the World Athletics Indoor Championships for 2024. The first-ever UCI Cycling World Championships, which are 13 or 14 events all taking place in 2023. Of course, we host the Edinburgh Festivals, which are world-renowned. Underneath all of that, there is a rich tapestry of smaller events that go to add flavor to show Scotland is about playing on regional strengths so everything from Up Helly Aa, the Viking festival in Shetland, all around to the Wigtown Book Festival in Dumfriesshire. Every area has something very special, and a story to tell about the place, but also the people. In fact, this year we are going to focus in on Scotland’s stories, allowing people and communities to tell their own stories. The latest trend is that people want authenticity. They want to hear from those who live and breathe the experiences that they have. It is that mélange of everything and, as long as it is packaged up and positioned properly, it makes Scotland extremely appealing.


What sort of impact do you expect from COP26, in regard to tourism? How is VisitScotland aiming to take advantage of this event to promote the country?

COP26 has worked very well on many levels. It reinforced our ability as a country to host and deliver successfully such an important event. Despite COVID restrictions there was a positive atmosphere, and the people who came were able to deliver their messages.

We hosted a number of events within the two-week period and used it very much as a catalyst for discussing and debating how tourism can play its part in terms of achieving net-zero emissions. There was a recognition that rather than trying to strike out on our own and find the magic solution, we should actually work together to try and find a common solution. Rather than having multiple ways of measuring the impact of tourism and how to mitigate it, why not have a uniform standard that we can all work toward? We can actually look at who is doing what, and how we do it, and share best practices. From that perspective, we were delighted.

Also last year, we signed up to the Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency initiative and were one of the first tourism organizations in the world to do that. This is because we realize how fragile our industry and our assets are and their importance to the overall tourism proposition. Within that, there are a couple of areas. First, there is internal leadership and what VisitScotland does as an organization to contribute to the cause. Our internal aspiration is to be a net-zero organization by the end of 2030. In the last couple of years, we have actually reduced our carbon footprint by 77 percent. The hard miles start now. However, there are still ways through utilizing technology such as virtual meetings, reaching a balance between in-person, hybrid and virtual interactions, and cutting down on the amount of travel by doing so only when necessary. The question is, do I need to travel, and if I do, can I do it more sustainably? There is no one simple answer to all of this, but there are many solutions. It is just getting your head around those solutions and being absolutely disciplined about implementing them.


How has the industry survived the pandemic in Scotland? What sorts of innovations have come out from the sector as a result of the COVID crisis?

The duration of COVID-19 has taken everyone by surprise. No one thought it was going to be as long as this. Businesses obviously suffered overnight and many had to close. A lot of people were put on furlough and trade was paralyzed. Both the U.K. and Scottish governments stepped in and put in a lot of financial support to make sure businesses could get to the other side, to come through and begin to trade and operate again. As an organization, we are not per se a grant-giving organization, but we were asked to help and ended up disbursing about 14 different schemes. We had to take ourselves out of our comfort zone and become project managers for these disbursements. We were able to learn lessons from previous schemes and ended up co-creating them with various sectoral bodies. That meant that they were more relevant to the people who were going to apply and that they were written in a language that they could understand. The process was tested throughout which meant that from application through to receiving the grants, it was much quicker. That meant that the people who needed the money for cash flow reasons to keep people employed, for instance, got their money a lot quicker. That allowed them to get into the position that we are in now, which is a bit of a hybrid between rescue and recovery.

Our cities were particularly badly hit because of the density of population. People wanted space. Our cities—in particular Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen—are very strong in terms of business events and, of course, conferences and those types of big meetings could not take place. That took a huge chunk of volume and value out of the city-based economies, particularly in the hospitality sector and in the hotel sector. There are signs of recovery, but it is still quite mixed. Fortunately, we have a strong domestic market, so as the U.K. began to open up again, we were able to tap into that. Although that has increased, the spend per visitor is not the same as with international visitors, because they stay longer, spend more money and travel more widely around the country. It is still a bit imbalanced, but nevertheless, it is quite nice because we are getting to a point where we can start to balance it again and look with some confidence to the future.


Aside from the COVID-19 downturn, what are some of the major challenges the industry is faced with at the moment, and the key projects, priorities and focus areas at VisitScotland?

There are labor shortages, not just in the tourism industry but across many sectors. Also, the impact of Brexit in this area is also starting to make itself known. Many people who might have come from Europe to work in Scotland, be it in agriculture, care homes, or in tourism, have not been able to do so. There is a real shortfall in terms of labor at the moment. That means that, even if you are actually very busy as a business, there are only so many areas in which you can operate without actually pushing people who are working there to the limit because that is self-defeating. You can see some of them are operating with reduced hours, unfortunately, although the demand is there. There is a little bit of resetting that has been required and there is a longer term needed to create the skills and the demand for jobs within the industry. That is going to be over a five-to-ten-year period.


Would you give us a glimpse into your current strategic plans, priorities and ambitions?

The immediate priority is to get the industry back up on its feet. At the same time, we have to look beyond the now into the future. Just prior to COVID hitting, we co-created with the rest of the industry, the next 10-year strategy to 2030, which was about responsible and inclusive tourism. We had already decided the pathway had to be about sustainable tourism but also be inclusive for everyone. It does not matter where you come from, whether you have mobility issues or sight issues, Scotland had to be open and welcoming to everybody, and there is a lot of work already going on in that area

The second area is very much about providing information and inspiration to visitors and potential visitors. It is about helping them in an end-to-end process when they are considering going somewhere; that content is inspiring but easy to access; then making sure that the booking process is simple; making sure that their experience on the ground when they get here is what they expect; and that they then go away perfectly happy and start to tell their friends, becoming advocates for the country. It is also about reassuring visitors in terms of the quality of the product that they are going to get, and at the moment reassuring them in a COVID environment.

In terms of quality assurance, it is also about business advice and how to maximize the potential of individual businesses and their reach. We do a lot of work through our own content management and search engine optimization teams. Additionally, we work with destination organizations to help them improve their offering as well as their reach and communication. We use the skills that we have in-house and then take them out to other organizations. This is part of the whole partnership working and collaboration that runs very strongly through our organization because we cannot invest on our own. We need to have a collective of those willing and eager to collaborate, and then enable them to work as partners with us. That way you get more bang for your buck. It is a very competitive environment and we need to be able to stand out.

Finally, looking beyond the narrow view of tourism, working with universities and also other sectors, the whisky industry are excellent ambassadors for Scotland. We know that distilleries have invested a huge amount of money in terms of visitor’s attractions. The new Johnny Walker Visitor Center in Edinburgh has recently opened up and is a fabulous venue. Working with them as well as with Scotland’s food and drink, offering more generally and packaging up what Scotland has in terms of the overall propositions is essential. This may be visiting somewhere, looking at something, listening to someone tell you a story, or enjoying a nice meal in a great restaurant and developing sectors like the agritourism, sector which is growing in demand.


Can you give us some insights into your promotional campaigns? What kinds of narratives do you use to bring forward all of the richness of Scotland?

Scotland has so much to offer, so the challenge is to remain focused. If we are talking to the luxury end of the market, the Gleneagles, the Torridons, or those types of venues are key. But then we also see a huge demand for outdoor tourism such as sea kayaking. When you look at Scotland from the water as opposed to looking from the land to the water, it takes on a slightly different dimension.

There is a multitude of things for people to do, but ultimately, it is the same mix of people, place and product. It just depends on what it is that you are dialing up. At the moment, our current activity is the campaign Scotland is Calling. The idea is that you have been patient, waiting a long time to come back to Scotland or visit Scotland for the first time, and here are all the things you can do. We just launched the next phase of this activity in March 2022, building on that momentum to position Scotland as a destination of choice in 2022 and beyond. Our approach now focuses on conveying the ways Scotland can fulfil a visitor’s emotional needs. It’s not just about all the unmissable things you can see and do in Scotland but how it feels to experience them. Additionally, we have been working on what we would call accessible packages, creating the very first UNESCO World Heritage Site Trail, pooling together all the UNESCO designated sites in Scotland into one offering. These are only pointers to allow people to access what there is. Once they get here, then they explore and find the different things that they are interested in. It is just understanding through the use of technology and data what it is that people are interested in and serving that content to them. Technology allows us to do exactly the same thing Amazon does in terms of what people are looking for, the type of experiences, accommodation and price points. We have benefitted from the COVID-19 experience in that it has made businesses, large and small, become exceptionally proficient in the digital experience in a very short period of time.


What are some of the biggest projects or key achievements which you are most proud of?

When I joined VisitScotland, we were in the middle of foot and mouth disease followed very quickly by 9/11. I found out how resilient the industry really is. From there on in, it has been through terrorism, the avian flu, volcanic ash clouds and the economic recession. Yet as an industry, we always bounce back and bounce back stronger. The organization has developed into much more than just a pure marketing organization. We are much more rooted in local areas. I really believe strongly in working with communities because that is how you maximize the potential, not just for the industry, but also for those people who are the lifeblood of Scottish tourism. We have seen huge amounts of investment go into infrastructure, and we now have world-class facilities like the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, or the Scottish Exhibition and Centre in Glasgow. There is the new P&J Live arena in Aberdeen. Those are state of the art. We have seen investments go into museums, such as the National Museum of Scotland and the V&A in Dundee. However, more than that, there is general confidence growing and self-belief that our offering is as good as anything anywhere. We need to take that confidence and communicate it not in an arrogant way, but in a confident way.


Do you have any final comments for the readers of Newsweek magazine?

We are getting back on our feet, but it is a collective effort, and we have seen how partnership and innovation can make a huge difference. That is the difference between returning to being a vibrant contributor to the economy and local communities or not. By focusing and continuing to focus on responsible and inclusive tourism, generations to come can also enjoy our assets and experiences. We look forward to welcoming the world back to Scotland again, but we ask anyone who does come to Scotland and enjoys what we have to offer, that they tread lightly and wherever possible leave no trace. May they be part of the solution in terms of making the world a cleaner and more sustainable place for all. We are very much up for playing our part.