By Scott Wright

A PERTHSHRE estate that is home to a major visitor attraction, holiday accommodation and outdoor activities is gearing up to capitalise on what is expected to be continuing demand for staycations next year.

But its chief executive admits the ongoing dearth of international holidaymakers remains a drag on the tourism sector’s ability to get people through the doors of Scotland’s visitor attractions.

Atholl Estates includes Blair Castle & Gardens – home to the 12th Duke of Atholl – luxury self-catering lodges, and a camping and caravan park, sitting on145,000 acres of land straddling the Cairngorms National Park.

Andrew BruceWootton, long-standing boss of Atholl Estates, said the volume of UK citizens holidaying at home, in particular the number of people searching for outdoor activities, has helped the business have an encouraging year.

However, he expressed concern over the lack of visitors to Blair Castle, which like other attractions is suffering as foreign visitors are yet to return to Scotland in significant numbers, and because of the absence of coach parties.

Mr BruceWootton said: “On the tourism side, as experienced in most other places in Highlands Scotland, there are large volumes of people coming up here looking to do activities, [and] possibly a bit of retail therapy. They are not interested so much to go inside to visitor attractions.

“We’ve had a very busy year at our self-catering and our holiday park, not so much at Blair Castle. [We are] looking forward to hopefully more of a recovery to normal patterns of behaviour next year.”

The observations from Mr BruceWootton follow a recent survey by the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions, which declared that there has been “no staycation boom” for the sector.

The survey found more than a third of attractions (34.3%) are not currently operating at an economically sustainable level. Less than half (48.1%) of the sector was found to be fully open, with one in 10 attractions remaining closed. In addition, 40.9% of venues were operating with reduced hours or limited facilities because of challenges arising from the pandemic and Brexit.

Mr BruceWootton said the ASVA findings reflect Atholl Estates’ own experience, and suggested the lower footfall reflected the new visitor mix amid the absence of foreign visitors and coach tours.

“I think a lot of indoor attractions are probably more reliant on those two markets than maybe they had realised in the past,” he said. However, he also highlighted a strong demand from domestic holidaymakers to engage in outdoor activities and explore rural Scotland, which he does not expect to disappear.

Following a busy year with domestic holidaymakers, Atholl is currently recruiting for a new head of tourism and event operations as it puts a new strategy in place to ensure it takes advantage of the changes seen in the market since the pandemic struck. The new plans will seek to unify the various units of the business to present a more streamlined picture to consumers, while ensuring it appeals as a year-round tourism destination. The castle will be at the heart of the offer.

Mr BruceWootton said the business has had a “great response” to the vacancy, which he said underlined the attraction of working on the estate.

“Atholl is a really fabulous place and a very diverse business,” he said. “But importantly, it is a community-based business. There is a lot more to working here than work. It is a true and authentic estate.”

He added: “This is a very exciting time to join the team as we move to position the estates as a year-round destination, with the castle at its heart. We have an incredibly diverse range of activities for visitors to enjoy across our land."

Atholl Estates has around 85 full-time staff in summer, topped up by 45 seasonal staff at peak times.

Asked if the business was experiencing challenges in recruiting staff, amid well-documented labour shortages within the industry, Mr BruceWootton said he was finding it “incredibly difficult here to fill seasonal roles particularly”.

The business has a 300-pitch caravan park, which includes camping pods and woodland lodges, and 11 self-catering lodges ranging from two to 11 bedrooms in size. Attractions range from Blair Castle to outdoor activities such as walking, cycling and wildlife safaris.