RECRUITING staff in the face of the Brexit-sparked skills shortage remains the biggest issue facing employers in the Scottish tourism sector, a leading industry figure has declared.

Marc Crothall, chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA), said yesterday that accessing skills is “still the biggest challenge” for the industry.

His comments came as a draft strategy for future growth was unveiled at the organisation’s autumn conference in Edinburgh yesterday.

Mr Crothall said the strategy, first which will be developed with input from the Scottish Government, puts people at the heart of the growth agenda as one of four key priorities. Place, businesses and experiences are the three other priorities, each of which will be measured against key objectives.

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The update comes after the STA warned at its spring conference that Scottish hotel and tourism businesses were seeing a dramatic fall in job applications from people within the European Union (EU).

Large parts of the Scottish tourism industry depend on migrant workers from the EU to fill posts in hotels around the country, notably at the height of the summer season. But that source of talent is at risk of being blocked because of Brexit, which could bring an end to the free movement of people between EU nations and the UK.

A survey by a company which specialises in tourism recruitment found that job applications from the EU had dropped from 20,000 to 2,000 per month.

Speaking from yesterday’s conference, held at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, Mr Crothall said: “It is still a concern. We also held our AGM at the beginning of the day and pretty much everybody in the room said that is still the biggest challenge for them – not having access to workforce or applications.”

He added: “It is the major concern, still, and it is why it is a major pillar of the future strategy.”

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Asked how the new strategy compares with the current plan, Mr Crothall said its remit is broader than simply driving top line volume revenue growth. Sustainability and business  performance are part of the new plan.

He also said that a much broader “church of stakeholders” which will have a say in developing the new strategy, which will receive input from across different sectors.

“It’s very much collective ownership and much bolder,” Mr Crothall said.

“It’s about making tourism a force for good across the whole of Scotland, rather than being for a section of the industry, or the industry itself.”

The draft strategy, which will be shaped over the coming months and officially launched in March, is the first to prioritise the environment. It will also aim to ensure more of Scotland benefits from the tourism industry, including parts of the country which are more difficult to reach. That could involve investment in transport infrastructure and digital connectivity.

Mr Crothall said: “Transport is huge. We have to open the infrastructure routes around ferries and public transport, as well as getting into parts of Scotland which for many are not necessarily reachable. People want to have these discoveries – they want to immerse themselves into the culture of Scotland, or any destination.”

Meanwhile, asked to comment on business generally, Mr Crothall said performance has been mixed across the country. “What lies ahead is the shoulder season (autumn and winter) and that is where there is possibly greater cause for concern around domestic spend,” he said.

“It is unlikely to be as buoyant as it has been in the past – we have seen evidence of shrinkage and a lot more cautious decisions being taken on how to spend leisure time.”

Mr Crothall added: “It is how we spread that benefit and that money across the whole of the country, and again that’s a key aim of the future strategy.”