By Scott Wright

THE perception that jobs in tourism and hospitality are low-paid and involve long hours must be tackled if the current staff shortage is to be eased, a new industry leader for the west of Scotland has warned.

A combination of Brexit and the “pingdemic” has left the sector critically short of staff at its busiest time of the year, undermining efforts to make up for time lost due to lockdown restrictions in the last sixteen months.

But the new chief executive of the Argyll and Isles Tourism Co-operative (AITC) said the recruitment problem could be resolved if there was a greater understanding of the breadth of roles and remuneration on offer.

Speaking on her first day in office, Cathy Craig said: “There is a perception issue, that roles in hospitality and tourism are low-paid and long hours and actually, that is not the case. There is a huge amount of variety.”

Highlighting roles in areas such as marketing and product development, and within activity organisations, Ms Craig said there was a “huge breath of good quality, well-paid jobs across the sector”. But she said “we have got a perception problem that is not well understood… We need to do more to encourage parents and younger people that there are good careers to be had in tourism in Scotland.”

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Ms Craig also contends that the industry could tap into potential local labour pools among people who are considering returning to work part-time following retirement, or those who would consider a role in tourism as part of a “portfolio career”.

Ms Craig joined the independent AITC from her role as commercial director of Entrepreneurial Scotland, but is no stranger to tourism. She has served on the board of VisitScotland for six years and has been a volunteer director of AITC for four, in addition to the senior roles she has held with CalMac and ScotRail since moving to Scotland eight years ago. Her appointment as the first chief executive of the AITC has been funded by a £350,000 grant from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which will pay for the recruitment of 6.5 posts “to help the industry in Argyll recover and grow” in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis.

The aim is to boost visitor numbers and tourist spend through marketing and developing new products. Asked to sum up the current outlook among tourism businesses in the area, Ms Craig told The Herald: “It is definitely cautious optimism. Lots of businesses are reporting that they are having a bumper season, what season they have had.

“We are hearing that occupancy is up across the region. Obviously, there is pent-up demand and a lot of staycations: the visitor profile has definitely changed, there are a lot of British visitors as opposed to your usual international visitors.

“There’s definitely optimism, but there is a lot of ground to make up, clearly. Many business have been closed for a long time. They are very busy but there are challenges across the industry as well. Staffing seems to be a real issue at the moment. That seems to be a factor of both Brexit and Covid combined.”

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She said it was important to press home the message to tourists that Argyll is “safe” to visit and return to, noting that the area generated visitor spend of £364m in the area in 2019.

And Ms Craig emphasised the importance of the ferry service being reliable and running at capacity after a summer season blighted by breakdowns and cancellations on the west coast. As a former employee of CalMac, Ms Craig sympathised with the problems facing that organisation due to the age of the ferry fleet, as well as increased in demand from domestic holidaymakers this year. But she said it was “imperative” that the service is reliable and operates at full capacity, both for tourism and for people living on the islands who depend on the “lifeline” it provides.

Ms Craig also commented on the recent controversy surrounding plans by the Scottish Government to introduce a licensing system for the short-term holiday letting sector. Last week, a number of tourism organisations resigned from a Scottish Government working group drawing up the proposals, lambasting the process a “sham” and claiming ministers have “continually shifted the goalposts”.

The proposal for a licensing scheme was brought forward amid concerns that the rise of Airbnb-style properties has contributed to problems such as a housing shortage and anti-social behaviour, notably in cities such as Edinburgh. But traditional self-catering accommodation providers have hit out at the cost and red tape involved.

Ms Craig said: “Getting a proportionate amount of registration and legislation in place that allows visitors to have a safe visit but also enables business to do business and to bring that spend into Scotland… that is an issue that needs to be resolved. Making it really difficult for businesses to actually do business by having too much regulation is quite challenging, particularly for small businesses.”

She added: “The industry feels it is not being listened to, and its concerns are not being addressed. They are not against registration…it is the degree to which those businesses need to be regulated that is causing hardship. It is hardship because these businesses, some of them, have not been able to trade for as long as 18 months now.”

Mulling the outlook for Scottish tourism, Ms Craig said it was important that all aspects of the industry come together to safeguard its recovery.

“There needs to be a Team Scotland approach,” she said. “I know it sounds quite glib, but the more that organisations collaborate, rather than demand of each other, we will recover. But it needs a team effort.”