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DAVID RICHARDSON: Tourism challenges lie ahead on a personal and much wider level

By David Richardson

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Business Focus by David Richardson

David Richardson was appointed as development and engagement manager for North Coast 500.
David Richardson was appointed as development and engagement manager for North Coast 500.

After 13 very happy years with the Federation of Small Businesses, August sees me transition to the North Coast 500.

I’m immensely proud to have played a small part in the success of the UK’s foremost business organisation, and sad to be saying goodbye to so many fantastic FSB members and colleagues, though it’s more “au revoir” than “farewell”.

So why jump ship?

The Highlands and Islands really is different to the rest of the UK – things like remoteness, sparce, highly dispersed populations, difficult geographies, poor transport connectivity and seasonality making running small businesses here particularly challenging.

But while difficult, this region is magnificent and the quality of life superb for those who think outside the box and set up and run successful businesses. That two of the first four winners of the overall FSB UK Small Business of the Year Award were Highland-based is no surprise, and nor is it surprising that both are in tourism.

However, all is not well. Of the many long-term challenges, nothing beats demographic decline. The 2022 Census revealed the frightening reduction in 0-15-year-olds and increase in those over 65 in all parts of this region since 2001, while Highland Council’s prediction that pupil numbers across its 29 secondary schools will fall by 23 per cent in the next 15 years is terrifying.

Based on our extensive surveying, FSB Scotland was the first to highlight the practical consequences of this decline on staffing levels, local economies and communities, something exacerbated by Brexit.

My association with the Highlands’ tourist industry goes back to 1988, when I moved north to manage Sutherland Tourist Board, and I’ve lived in Sutherland ever since. I’ve seen many changes in that time, both the very positive and the worryingly negative, and I’ve seen how, renewables notwithstanding, tourism has grown in importance as the economic bedrock on which countless communities sit.

But, while tourism marketing has been extremely effective and consumer demand is high, investment in maintaining and developing essential infrastructure has been very weak, opportunities are being missed, and we have unsustainable demographic decline.

That is the challenge that awaits me at NC500 – more next month.

• David Richardson is the Highland and Islands regional development manager at the Federation of Small Businesses.

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