THEY were chaotic scenes at some of Scotland’s most picturesque spots which saw traffic queues and rows of cars abandoned on verges and litter strewn around popular tourist attractions.

As lockdown restrictions eased it saw people flock to the coast and countryside, but didn’t show the tourist influx in a good light.

Now an award-winning Scottish business owner is calling for Scots to unite to show how the country should be a leader in world tourism

Sarah Heward, founder of The Real Food Cafe, in Tyndrum in the Highlands, believes that with the right funding and leadership, Scotland can capitalise on a post-lockdown surge in UK visitors.

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She said: “I think we have a unique opportunity right now to ‘sell’ Scotland to a new domestic market – and to capitalise on this looking ahead to be a world tourism leader.”

Sarah is highlighting a goal set out by the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) to “make Scotland a world leader in 21st century tourism by 2030.

She said: “On March 4 and immediately prior to the Covid lockdown, the STA outlined the aim for Scottish tourism. It appeared that the First Minister [Nicola Sturgeon] and the Scottish Government got behind this goal.

“It was said at the time that Scotland should be aiming to ‘look forwards and outwards and to welcome all those that come to visit our fantastic country’.

“As a hospitality professional and as someone that has invested everything into Scottish tourism and hospitality, emotionally, physically and financially, in addition to being a big fan of the great Scottish outdoors, this was music to my ears.

“But no one could foresee the extent of the social and economic shockwave that followed shortly thereafter in the wake of Covid-19.”

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During the pandemic, Scottish tourism was effectively closed for business just as the 2020 season was about to kick off. This lasted four peak months and affected thousands of businesses, including The Real Food Café, the winner of Best Informal Dining Experience at the Thistle Awards.

Now, as we start to emerge and restrictions are eased, Ms Heward is fearful that there is too much focus on the negatives of the influx of visitors, rather than seeing an opportunity to grasp the positives.

She said: “Almost all visitors to Scotland are domestic tourists just now. It’s an amazing opportunity because more people than ever from the UK are booking a staycation or going on an impromptu magical mystery tour around their own country. For many, it’s likely this is something new.

“But this, in turn, has led to a lot of negative coverage in the press and on social media about littering, irresponsible parking, dangerous driving, motorbike riding, as well as ‘dirty camping’ and too many motorhomes and campervans.

“I am already very weary of the moaning and berating of these visitors – and instead I am choosing to see opportunities not negativity.

“I’d like to encourage more people, businesses and groups to unite to get on the front foot to show the UK and the world what we can do to fulfil the goal of becoming a world leader in 21st century tourism by 2030.”

The Scottish tourism industry was badly hit during lockdown with job losses in the sector as businesses battled for survival with the hope of reopening when restrictions were lifted. Scottish tourism supports 218,000 jobs and contributes £7 billion to the Scottish economy.

Ms Heward, who owns The Real Food Cafe with her husband Alan McColm, believes that Scotland needs immediate government investment, such as to support an increase in countryside rangers and mountain rescue services, more bins and litter pickers, adequate public toilets and parking, as well as more tourism hosts and guides to help people make the most of their stay.

She said: “As things stand, it’s down to the hospitality business owners and well-meaning members of community councils, destination groups and similar bodies to do what they can to manage the rapidly changing and busy situation as safely as possible.

“There have been some Scottish Government investment schemes, such as the Rural Infrastructure Fund that groups can apply for, but no one is co-ordinating a strategy for Scotland as a whole. It’s piecemeal and this is hopeless.

“I am calling for someone to be tasked from the very top with pulling everything together and getting all the individual efforts bolstered and in alignment.”

Marc Crothall, Chief Executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, agrees that it is vital that action is taken.

He said: “Scotland’s tourism industry is open for business again and it’s more important than ever that the message that all are welcome here is not only heard but felt by anyone looking to explore Scotland.

“Tourism is one of the most important economic drivers for our country. Thousands of jobs depend upon it and our sector needs long-term government support to navigate our way out of the crisis and ensure that we can rebuild a sustainable tourism product and one day deliver our tourism strategy vision of being the world leaders in 21st century tourism.”

Ms Heward wants people, groups and businesses to unite to take positive action.

She said: “I urge people to stop being keyboard warrior, no matter how immediately gratifying it might be to vent, and instead turn their efforts to lobbying MPs, MSPs and the Scottish Government for funding and leadership to make this happen.

“If we can get it right with the domestic tourism market now then the next step will be to showcase our nation as a world tourism leader.

“Together, I believe we can – and must – do this.”