'I would rather deal with the problems of success than the problems of having no tourists'
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The chairman of VisitScotland is confident there will be a "rebalancing" of tourism following the surge in post-lockdown visitors that has led to a catalogue of complaints in the Highlands and other parts of the country.
Lord Thurso says he shares the frustration felt in many areas in recent weeks over the irresponsible actions of a minority of tourists. But he believes that 2020 will be seen as an exception, and that Scotland is ideally placed to develop a sustainable tourism sector which brings economic benefits with minimal impact on communities and the environment.
“I’m an eternal optimist," he said. "Put it this way: I think I’d rather deal with the problems of success than the problems of having no tourists.”
Lord Thurso (66) had an extensive career in the hospitality industry before serving as Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross from 2001 to 2015. He has been chairman of VisitScotland since 2016 and is a member of the Scottish Tourism Recovery Taskforce which is plotting the way ahead for tourism and hospitality in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.
Speaking at his home at Thurso East, he said: "Obviously, having spent my life before being in politics in the hospitality business, I feel great sadness that a few people are making such a negative impact.
“There is huge frustration that a very small minority have behaved so badly. The vast bulk of people behave extremely well.
"It’s not actually the Highlands that’s the problem, it’s the whole country. It’s happening everywhere. The problem is because the vast bulk of the population live in cities and they have been in lockdown – first the total lockdown and then eased lockdown.
"Many young people live in small, cramped flats and they’re desperate to get some fresh air and freedom. Normally they would probably be going on a package holiday to Spain or somewhere like that, all of which they can’t do.
“So you have a large number of people who have been cooped up, who are desperate to get out and about, whose normal holiday places are unavailable, and naturally they head for the hills and the coasts.
“The south of Scotland has got this problem, the Trossachs have got the problem, all the coastal towns have got the problem.
“It’s about understanding that this is a particular circumstance and hopefully in future years we will see a return to more normal tourism.
"I think also there’s an opportunity in this. I’m one of the members of the taskforce that the cabinet secretary [Fergus Ewing] has set up – I’m part of the subgroup that’s looking at investment. And I have made a suggestion that what we need to do is use one of the government funds, say the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund, so what we can actually create the facilities people need, particularly the campervans.
“If you look at France, for example, every little commune has a gîte, a site where you know that if you arrive at the end of the day you’ll be able to go somewhere that has the basic facilities. If we were to invest in that through central government giving funds to councils, that would mean that the need to go somewhere other than a proper place would be removed.
“That in turn would allow you to look at the possibility of a degree of regulation. Iceland did this a few years ago – they just got to a point where every passing place and layby had a campervan in it and they said ‘no’. So it became the law that you had to go to the specified places or have the permission of the owner of the ground, one or the other.
If the wealth from tourism was reinvested in better roads, that would be a very positive and beneficial thing.
“This is not to stop wild camping, because wild camping was never about wheeled vehicles anyway. Wild camping is where a chap parks his car in a car park, puts his tent and everything on his back and sets off across the hill.
“It’s about waking up in the morning and finding your drive has been blocked by a van so you can’t get out, and then when they do go they’ve left their rubbish behind for you to clean up.
“That, I think, is something we should be looking to regulate more but you can only regulate for it if you have made the provision, so it’s an even-handed approach.
“I think there’s a lot that we can do to invest, to ensure that we get the maximum economic benefit for the minimum environmental and social disruption to the host community, while also providing for the leisure of our citizens. That’s what we are looking at – how do we help to be part of that positive progress?”
Further investment in upgrading roads from single-track to double-track would make a big difference, he says, not only along the North Coast 500 route but in other parts of Scotland.
“In my time driving round what was then the constituency there were quite a lot of bits that were improved from single-track and it’s good for everybody," Lord Thurso said. “If the wealth from tourism into the nation was reinvested in better roads, that would be a very positive and beneficial thing.
“What tourism does is to bring wealth into areas that might not otherwise have it. I know for a fact that there are some facilities and some village shops that get revenue from people travelling – whether they’re staying in B&Bs and hotels or whether they’re camping – and if that revenue was not there, their existence would become more marginal.
“There’s a little crofting village not far from Durness where the ability to have people stay in B&B and have eco-cabins for let and things like that is what makes the community work. Prior to these kinds of developments, most of the croft homes were derelict and there were a few old families left, but families have come back from being away and have renovated properties.
“If you’ve got two really good en-suite bedrooms that you can let as a B&B, you can change your crofting lifestyle from a fairly marginal one to a very comfortable one.
“If you talk to the hoteliers up here, if you add up the number of people who are employed and the amount of money that’s going directly into the community... When people see a tourist they see somebody who is driving through or whatever. What they don’t see is the builder work, the legal fees, the cleaners and all the rest of it. They might think about the chefs and waiters, but there’s a huge economy that is supported by that activity.
“And it means that there are people and services that are available for the rest of us to use. Restaurants survive through the year but they make their money when the visitors come and are able to enjoy the wonderful local produce.
“What I hope is that we positively work to up-skill and up-quality the natural offerings that we have so that the economic visitor, the tourist who is coming here because they love the things we’ve got, is also spending a lot of money and supporting the local economy. This year, to me, is a bit of an exception because of the fact that our cities were closed down and people can’t do what they usually do.
“At the moment Glasgow and Edinburgh hotel occupancy is sitting at under 20 per cent. Holiday homes outside the cities are sitting at 90 per cent occupancy. Normally Edinburgh would be 100 per cent occupied.
“We are in the middle of August, we should be in the middle of the festival. This time last year everybody was complaining like crazy that you couldn’t move in Edinburgh, it was terrible and ghastly... You can do anything you like in Edinburgh at the moment, but there’s a heck of a lot of businesses that are probably not going to reopen.
This year, to me, is a bit of an exception because of the fact that our cities were closed down and people can’t do what they usually do.
“At VisitScotland we’ve been criticised by some people for not banging the drum hard enough and not being more positive about welcoming visitors, which I think is misguided because what we have recognised from day one of planning for the restart was that there would be anxiety in communities and we were likely to have some people who might not know how to behave.
“Our chief executive Malcolm Roughead has spent a lot of time on Zoom calls with communities all over Scotland. We created the Good to Go scheme to give an assurance that people who are offering accommodation provision have got good guidance and know how to operate so that they provide a safe environment for their guests.
“One of the reasons I think people are taking to caravan and campervans is that they control that environment and it’s therefore perceived to be safe.
“I’ve got two holiday cottages and I’ve gone through with the person who deals with them all the guidance and I’ve provided masks and I’ve provided special cleaning products. We’ve got a completely new routine – for example you don’t have somebody leaving in the morning and somebody else arriving in the afternoon, you leave 24 hours so that you can wait for any potential droplets that might be there to have gone.
“We have special products to wipe down all the surfaces and all this sort of thing to make it as safe as possible, both for the person who is doing the cleaning but also for the guests who are coming in. The hoteliers and B&B owners are doing exactly the same – in fact, doing more.
“Because they have done this, it’s very safe to stay and it’s very safe to use restaurants.”
Looking ahead to the post-pandemic landscape, he said: “I am convinced that the combination of stunning environment and stunning produce and wonderful Highland welcome, which I think will remain undiminished, will attract people who will want to come and stay in Scotland and who will want to spend money, and we will again be an important industry.
“The week before lockdown I was at a meeting where we were looking at one of the best years on record. We were anticipating £11 billion or £12bn into the GDP of the country – 10 or 12 per cent of Scottish economic activity. A week later a switch was flicked and broadly 90 per cent of that stopped.
“You’re talking about nine per cent of the economy stopping dead overnight and that’s an amazing impact to have. As somebody said, we flicked a switch to turn it off but it’s more like very slowly turning a dimmer switch to get it back on – which is what we’re doing.
“Once cities are able to reopen, when we get to the point where sport, business events, festivals and things like that can come back – which may be into next year, I suspect – once that happens then I think we will get a rebalancing back to the tourism that we’ve had in the past.”
Late last year Lord Thurso began work on a document – publication of which has been delayed by the coronavirus outbreak – on sustainability as part of responsible tourism, and “having the tourism levels which a community is comfortable with”.
He explained: “The Scottish Government should look at providing a fund which would enable people in B&Bs and self-catering and hotels to ‘green up’ by, for example, having charging points for electric cars, by being able to do improvements to their properties so that they need less and less energy.
“One of the key brand values of tourism in Scotland is the quality of our environment. Equally we know from our research that what are loosely called the millennials like to holiday in a responsible way. They love it if the place they’re staying is completely green. If you’ve got, for example, a pod for glamping and the energy is all produced by solar panels this is really attractive.
"So you arrive up from the south of England or wherever and you come by train, you rent an electric car, you go and stay in a place which is green and you go away and you’ve had the wonderful experience of Scotland and you also, if you like, have a free conscience that you’ve not contributed to emissions.
"That, to my mind, is a huge economic opportunity for the whole of Scotland and indeed the Highlands. We encourage more and more responsible product, which means we get more and more responsible consumers coming, and that in turn is part of the solution to the kind of people who come and dump rubbish and make a mess and leave it all behind.
“We had a big staff conference in Edinburgh last October and in my speech I just said, ‘I want to be part of the solution. Tourism is not bad. Tourism is good.’”
The best way to get to Orkney would be a green railway to Wick followed by a little hop across. That’s not science fiction.
Lord Thurso also has a vision of an environmentally friendly aviation and rail network linking Caithness and Orkney, pointing out that there are moves to develop a hybrid-electric propulsion system for the Britten-Norman planes used in the islands.
“It is likely to go into service within the next year or two,” he said. “At that point the most environmentally friendly way to get round Orkney will be by plane. Curiously, it might just be that the most environmentally friendly way to get to Orkney would be by an electric plane hop from Wick to Kirkwall.
“You might think if we upgraded to a green railway, the best way to get to the Orkney islands would be a green railway to Wick followed by a little hop across. That’s not science fiction.
“They’re looking at developing the next size of aeroplane up, which is the 20 to 25-seater. That would mean you could fly from Glasgow to Skye in an electric plane and that would mean that the most environmentally friendly way of visiting Skye would be to fly there from Glasgow in an aeroplane.
“At the staff conference I came up with this and I can’t tell you the emails I had from young staff, the millennials, saying: ‘Thank God the board is thinking this way, it’s fantastic, I want to be part of it.’
"Sustainability is not just about ‘green’, it’s about sustainability in the relationship with the communities that are host to tourism, because there is absolutely no doubt about the good that it does. Equally there is no doubt about the harm it can do, and it’s about managing it so you get it right, which is about investing in the right infrastructure in the right places and managing it so you get the economic value and minimise the social and environmental disruption.”
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