Open Letter to Fergus Ewing

Dear Fergus:

my congratulations for having held the Tourism portfolio for the last four years. That is quite a record in terms of stability in the slippery world of politics. However, I have to ask what you believe you have actually achieved in that time that would not have happened entirely by itself.

This week’s choice of meeting venue for the annual Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) midsummer conference of Cumbernauld—the ‘Carbuncle of Scotland’ and symbol of how wrong town planning can get—might be seen as a metaphor for the ill-conceived nature of current tourism planning in Scotland. I recognise that the STA is not under your control but such cack-handed thinking is representative of the parts that are.

It starts with VisitScotland, your main quango and executive arm. VS appears more keen on behaving like a corporate cash cow than a promotion and support operation. From a symbolically remote eyrie down in the docks, it presides over a wheen of meetings, strategies and bumf production but seems to have scant understanding of the experience of the average tourist and, more especially, their needs. They have distanced themselves further from their ‘customers’ by closing many TICs because of ‘falling footfall’.

It is obvious that VS never stopped to analyse why that footfall declined when visitor numbers were rising. Apart from selling kitsch like Loch Ness Monster soft toys from Kirkcudbight to Kirkwall and plugging only those B&B signed up to pay VS fees, they became staffed with warm bodies with scant knowledge of the areas served. Their usage fell because of an obvious programme to kill them off, ostensibly because “everyone uses the internet nowadays”. Simplistic and flat wrong—as wrong as last decade’s push to have all B&B’s en suite, which has ruined many a quaint cottage bedroom to satisfy VS’ box-ticking fetish.

The second problem is that VS has body-swerved local tourism to make it a council problem. Even if councils had the necessary business attitudes, VS has abdicated all responsibility in co-ordinating key tools and templates so that each of the 32 councils reinvents their own tourism wheel with mixed results (CoSLA being no more than a talking shop). But they do so on declining budgets as their secure education and social budgets that are 3/4 of their outlay. But no councillor gets elected on his/her vision of tourism.

As a result, council Economic Development budgets are often under £1m and so struggle to print local leaflets, let alone co-ordinate/exploit and distribute benefits from major tourism markets such as Edinburgh. A Golf Officer here and a User Group there result in small-scale projects but nothing lasting, still less strategic.

More importantly, councils have yet to understand ‘customers’ or break out of departmental ‘silo’ mentality. For example, Planning treats all applications with the same ‘objectivity’. This means running scared of developers and indifference to future tourism needs. Hotels and B&Bs are lost as profitable housing—even if it is never the affordable housing that the country needs. Per-day spend by tourists plummets as a result.

Transportation in councils is another case. They remain in the dark ages when it comes to through-ticketing and organise supported bus networks as if it were still the 1980s when ploughmen’s wives had to get into town to do the shopping. Not only are there no tourist-oriented services linking with trains (even seasonal) but any information provided is patchy. If there are any timetables at a stop, they are by different companies and show timing points that are seldom tourist destinations like castles or museums. Local buses often run school services through school holidays when they could run a tourist service. The concept of a day ticket for use on all transport (as most of our European visitors expect) is still alien.

At the STA meeting, tourism chiefs complained of “problems with tax levied on tourism experiences, air passenger duty, high fuel prices, poor digital connectivity and difficulties recruiting skilled workers.” I’m sure all that is true. But, at a more basic level, nobody is addressing the need for a professionalism in hospitality as a cultural issue. The number of cafes, restaurants, bars, etc staffed by young girls with no training, yet who provide a major interaction experience with visitors is appalling. Even in the States, service is rewarded and waiters/bartenders/etc have an enlightened attitude to pleasing the customer. We still suffer from the clock-watching teen who’d rather yak with her friend in public view. Some of the worst examples vampire on key destinations, living by inertia: try getting a decent lunch in the three hotels at Dunvegan, Skye. Yet the (un-signposted) Three Chimneys is just down the road.

Marc Crothall, STA Chief Executive said “Scotland faces barriers to ensure that visitors  see it as first choice for a high-quality, value for money and memorable customer experience”. We have had eight years of such high-minded guff and it has largely been down to innovative chefs and pioneering hosts to provide progress to overcome those barriers. My own North Berwick now has a flourishing local restaurant market for locally-landed lobster and crab. It was generated by local businesses prepared to take risks; both VS and the local council were useless in either developing or supporting the idea. Indeed, Planning did their best to obstruct using a derelict historic building as a site.

We are all still living on the fact that Scotland has a global profile that any other nation (not just a small one) would give its eye teeth to have. The experience that will bring visitors back is not what draws people to Lanzarote or Phuket. We are not about sun-drenched packages where geography is almost immaterial. Scotland must be as modern and welcoming in its hospitality as anywhere else—global standards now demand it. But charging cruise ship visitors who’ve just been schlepped to the shoddy Hawes Pier $1,000 for a day tour of Edinburgh is not the way to demonstrate that.

Our appeal is based on evocative scenery and ancient stonework but this must be presented with style and warmth. The real attraction of our golf courses—shabby by comparison with Atlanta or Dubai—is the gritty challenge of authentic links courses that you can’t fabricate elsewhere. Access to the character of the Scots, the sense that we welcome them, talk to them in a language most understand, make personal contact is something Lanzarote or Phuket can’t offer. Providing a modern service against a backdrop of historic beauty will bring them and their cousins back again and again.

VS is a chocolate teapot. If you think that’s overly harsh, consider some facts:

  1. VS gross spend has gone from £58.1m to £63.6m in the last two years. That’s a 10% boost when everyone else’s budget is being cut.
  2. Last year Grant in Aid (i.e. SG funding from public money) to VS increased from £45.3m to £47.7m, an increase of over 5% in just a year.
  3. The £4.7bn increase in tourist spend in 2014 celebrated by VS and STA was entirely driven by one-off events such as the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup.
  4. On VS’s (and your own ministerial) watch, overnight tourism stays in Scotland—a clear measure of serious tourism expenditure—have declined steadily from 17m to under 15m. That is a drop on 13% on VS’s own figures.
  5. VS paid over £1m in ‘severance packages’ last year, half of which went to 6 senior staff.

This is YOUR baby, Fergus; the buck has stopped at your door for 50 months now—and counting. Is your VS really fit for purpose? Do you expect Scotland to coast past  another decade of opportunity with a money-grubbing VS and councils’ internecine pen-pushers as our tourism ‘spearhead’ when they are as sharp as stale porage?

Or is it not high time this costly, ossified, self-serving quangocracy got its jotters and you earned your £86,300 paycheck in sorting this out?

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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