IN an age of manufactured outrage, it can be hard to discern between comments issued for effect and those based on well-grounded concern.

But there was no mistaking the depth of genuine, considered feeling from the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) when it responded to the UK Government’s derided points-based immigration system.

In fact, the comments from STA chief executive Marc Crothall almost took the breath away when they dropped into the inbox last week.

Mr Crothall, a man who is not given to hyperbole in media interviews, declared that Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit policy was now the “biggest threat to Scotland’s tourism industry”.

“This system will exacerbate the existing recruitment challenge the industry is already facing due to the current steady decline in international workforce retention and applications and there not being a sufficient... skilled workforce available to tap into, placing the sector, one of the most important economic drivers for Scotland, in severe jeopardy,” he said.

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“These plans totally disregard the skill set and importance of whose who work in the sector and go against what is needed in Scotland as a whole.”

Much newsprint and airtime has rightly been devoted to examining the detrimental impact Mr Johnson’s big immigration plan, due to kick in after the transition period ends on December 31, will have on the Scottish labour market. Representatives of sectors such as care, agriculture, fisheries, and food and drink production have wasted no time in asserting the erroneous impact Mr Johnson’s policy – part of his mission to “bear down” on immigration – will have on their ability to recruit much-needed staff.

The impact on tourism merits further focus, though. Ever since the UK voted to exit the European Union (EU) in June 2016, owners of pubs, restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions have been vociferous in warning that Brexit – and specifically the end to the free movement of people between the bloc and the UK – will be hugely damaging to a sector which has come to rely on a migrant workforce from the EU to fill key positions.

And these people, it should again be emphasised, have not been flocking to Scotland to be exploited as “cheap labour”, as crudely characterised by the UK Government last week.

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Many EU migrants have come with a willingness to work hard and learn, and to experience life in Scotland. Tourist-facing companies have responded by embracing their willingness to learn, and have invested in their potential. Visit any sizeable hotel or resort in Scotland and the chances are you will be greeted by highly skilled workers from EU countries. Many will have honed their abilities here, thanks to the training provided to them by Scottish businesses.

Sadly, the industry’s repeated warnings over several years that Brexit will lead to a skills shortage have gone unheeded, which perhaps explains the ferocity of Mr Crothall’s comments. That the tourism industry was not consulted on the plans only adds to the sense of frustration.

Make no bones about it, tourism, one of Scotland’s biggest employers and contributors to economic growth, is staring down the barrel of a skills crisis, and that is before Mr Johnson’s points system is introduced.

Job applications from EU nationals for posts in the industry have already tumbled since the Brexit vote.

According to the STA, there were 3,500 fewer EU nationals working in Scotland in the peak summer months last year than in 2018, which the organisation says is down to Brexit.

That decline has been evident at the Crieff Hydro group, one of Scotland’s biggest tourism employers, where the percentage of staff from EU countries has dropped from 40% of the total to 30%.

Brexit supporters regularly make the point that the fall in movement from the EU is a good thing, and that employers should make a point of filling positions with local people.

But that is easier said than done.

Crieff boss Stephen Leckie, who projects he would need to hike turnover massively to meet the immigration salary threshold proposed by Mr Johnson, says it is difficult to recruit locally. The nature of hotel jobs and the hours demanded are not too popular with locals, who prefer not to work at weekends or beyond the hours of nine to five.

It is also a matter of simple arithmetic. The working-age population in Scotland is in decline, and there are parts of the country where there are just not enough people to fill posts with locals.

This was summed up well by hotelier Tony Story, owner of the Kingsmills and Ness Walk hotels in Inverness, who told The Herald that it will be difficult to fill the void if the flow of workers from the EU is halted.

“It is probably the greatest single challenge we have,” he said. “It is extremely worrying, because we have an industry that we can continue to grow, but the human resource is becoming more and more limited.

“We have seen a huge decrease in the number of people [coming] from Europe to work in Inverness, because of the uncertainty.” He added: “Some people may argue that it is a good thing – I don’t believe that it is.”

What makes the situation more problematic for Scottish tourism is that the labour crisis has come at a crunch time for the industry.

While official figures point to a rise in “staycations” in light of the pound’s continuing weakness against the euro and US dollar, there has been a corresponding fall in international holidaymakers coming to Scotland.

And tourism businesses such as hotels are now facing the prospect of local councils introducing transient visitor levies, known more popularly as tourist taxes.

Some view this as a positive development, in that it could help councils raise cash for services in heavily visited areas such as Edinburgh.

But business owners argue that it sends out the message Scotland is an expensive place to visit. After all, they point out, the level of value-added tax (VAT ) in the UK is already one of the highest in Europe.

The rise of Airbnb and the costs associated with red tape such as the apprenticeship levy are also regularly cited as concerns by tourism business owners.

In short, they say the rising cost of operating is making it increasingly difficult for them to reinvest in their properties and maintain the global reputation Scotland has carefully built.

That reputation will be even harder to preserve if the industry is unable to attract the talent it so badly needs because of an illogical plan to limit immigration.