BREXIT uncertainty has caused overseas visitors to stay away from Scotland this year, heaping pressure on one of the country’s most important industries.

Tourism figures say the ongoing political strife in the UK has forced European tourists to holiday elsewhere this summer. And the decline has not been offset by so-called "staycations", with the fragile economic conditions causing domestic holidaymakers to rein in their spending.

Worries over Brexit have emerged strongly in new evidence given to the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) the representative body for the industry with more than 250 members. It comes after figures from VisitScotland showed the number of inbound visits to Scotland plunged by 35 per cent to 420,000 in the first quarter of the year, while accompanying spending dropped 43% to £193 million.

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Industry figures say the decline in visitor numbers is being particularly felt in the major cities. And they say the fall is partly being driven by overseas holidaymakers planning trips for this year on the assumption that Brexit would have happened by now, given that the UK was initially scheduled to have exited the EU on March 29. 

Calum Ross, who owns the Loch Melfort Hotel near Oban with wife Rachel, said: “The performance across the industry is patchy. I hear cities, in particular, talking about numbers being down. Edinburgh seems to be struggling, despite all the furore around the festival. The feedback I’m getting for some of the key attractions that I’m in touch with is that their numbers are down quite significantly, and it is the European numbers that seem to be hit most.”

The decline in visitors from Europe appears to run counter to a prevailing view that the weakness of the pound since the Brexit vote of 2016 has made Scotland more attractive to visitors from overseas. Mr Ross said: “The weaker pound is one side of the coin, but whether it is enough to offset the emotional, political perception of Brexit [is unclear]. Without question, Brexit is the word that is on everybody’s lips across the country [in terms of] having an impact on visitor numbers.”

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He also suggested the impact of the staycation trend may be over-stated, noting that while the weaker pound may have made holidays to countries such as Spain more expensive, the cost of holidaying at home might still be higher than visiting those destinations.

Stephen Leckie, owner of the Crieff Hydro hotel group and chairman of the STA, agreed the decline in visitor numbers was being felt most acutely in Scotland’s major cities, where he believes there is now an excess of hotel rooms following recent, extensive development. Hoteliers are also meeting intense competition from Airbnb providers, which he said do not face the same level of regulation as hotels.

While noting that holidaying in Scotland has technically become cheaper for Europeans because of the collapse of the pound, Mr Leckie, whose firm also owns Peebles Hydro, said: “The latent demand is declining in the cities. There are more hotel rooms, more Airbnb rooms [and] there is less demand.

"So what is happening is that Edinburgh and Glasgow are soaking up anything that comes in, which means that the provinces [such as] Peebles are feeling it.”

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Although many Scottish tourism attractions continue to thrive, such as The North Coast 500, West Highland Way and Outlander tours, Mr Leckie said “there are lots of places in Scotland which aren’t doing quite as well.”

He added: “And the spend is less. People have less money.”

John Henderson of Born in the Borders, which combines a café and restaurant, food and drink shop, and brewer on the banks of the River Teviot, said visitor numbers and revenue are both running about 10 per cent to 15 per cent lower than last year.

He said Brexit uncertainty “plays its part” in the decline of both international and domestic visitor numbers the business is seeing.

There is a “perception” among overseas visitors that Brexit is a “problem” in the UK, while domestic visitors are spending less because of the wider uncertainty, he added.

Born in the Borders broadly trades as a tourism business for three months of the year, and depends on local trade for the rest of the time. “There is definitely a decrease in discretionary spend [among domestic visitors], a slight nervousness about spending generally,” said Mr Henderson, who is also a farmer.

“[There is] also a slight change in attitude. Yes, people will still come out, but it is for a specific reason. It is event-driven; there is less spontaneity about their habits, eating out and spending, just because they are feeling less freedom.

“When you factor in the rising cost of doing business at the same time, 10% is a fairly major number."

Meantime, there is view in the tourism industry that more holidaymakers are spending more time in rural parts of Scotland because of widespread reports of “over-tourism” in cities such as Edinburgh.

Marc Crothall, chief executive of the STA, said the “compound effect” of media coverage suggesting Edinburgh is suffering from “over-tourism”, plans to introduce a tourist tax in the city, and hostile language around Brexit is harming efforts to present Scotland as open and welcoming to tourists.

He also believes the fragile economic and political backdrop has led to both international and domestic tourists - which account for 70% of people holidaying in Scotland - spending less.