Last year, Scotland welcomed a record number of international visitors, domestic tourism ticked upwards and total overnight stays rose by a healthy 3 per cent. Clearly, the combined efforts of the Scottish Government, Visit Scotland, the Scottish Tourism Alliance and Scotland Food and Drink are working. But while the latest visitor numbers from Visit Scotland are encouraging, tourist spending is down and new threats are coming into view.
Scotland's international appeal
International inbound trips rose a staggering 10 per cent in 2018. In total, 3.5 million international tourists spent some £2.2bn in the nation's hotels, restaurants and attractions. Despite fears of a Brexit slowdown, European visitor numbers to Scotland rose by 19 per cent to 2.2 million, accounting for 64 per cent of all international visits. There was also a rise in visitors from Australia, New Zealand, China and India.
The record breaking temperatures recorded in 2018 may have also helped domestic tourism which ticked up by 1.2 per cent. In total, GB visitors recorded 11.8m overnight trips contributing £2.8bn to the tourist economy.
There are a number of possible reasons behind the rise.
First, new flight routes into Scotland have helped drive up air traffic. Edinburgh airport recorded a 6.5 per cent rise in traffic in 2018 with 14.3m passengers, helped by new direct flights from Beijing to Edinburgh. While Glasgow airport saw a very slight decline, largely due of the loss of some Ryanair flights, further growth is forecast. Notably, the Emirates' Dubai-Glasgow service which helps bring in visitors from the Middle and Far East is set to expand as a result of the introduction of the new A380 superjumbo.
Second, Scotland has successfully positioned itself as a destination for high quality food and drink. Scotland's hotels and restaurants are doing an excellent job of delivering on that promise, and the food and drink industry has invested heavily in the experience economy.
Last year, Edrington opened its new £140m distillery and visitor centre in Speyside for The Macallan whisky brand – an architecturally stunning addition to the local landscape, which is expected to attract thousands of visitors and deliver significant benefits for the tourism industry. New projects are also in the pipeline, with Diageo having recently announced plans for a £150m investment in its new Johnnie Walker flagship visitor centre in Edinburgh. This could drive a further £135m in tourism spend in the wider Edinburgh economy.
Third, the rebranding of the road system in the northern Highlands as the North Coast 500 has been phenomenally successful in attracting visitors. While some have bemoaned the increase in traffic and supercar tourism, the hospitality sector has undoubtedly benefitted.
Fourth, the success of Scotland's universities in attracting international students is also helping to drive inbound tourism. Interestingly, the number of international tourists visiting friends and family jumped by 28 per cent last year.
Clouds on the horizon
While the Scottish Government were quick to welcome the rise in visitors last year, the Visit Scotland report also revealed an overall drop in tourist spending of 7.4 per cent. New threats are also beginning to emerge.
The Scottish Government has recently announced that its plans to abolish air departure tax have been scrapped amid environmental and fiscal concerns.
The introduction of the Edinburgh tourist tax (or Transient Visitor Levy) could depress visitor numbers, and possibly lead to a further transfer away from hotels to the AirBnB private rental economy.
While Brexit doesn’t appear to have put off visitors, the same cannot be said for EU nationals working in the tourism sector. An estimated 3,000 EU nationals have left the industry, which is making it very difficult for hospitality businesses to operate – particularly in rural areas.
And last but not least, Scotland has to avoid the dangers of 'over-tourism' which have plagued other popular tourist destinations. The Scottish Government must work with the industry to ensure that the sector develops in a way that respects the environment, local communities and businesses so that tourists can really experience the best that Scotland has to offer.