Scotland’s previously booming tourism sector is likely to be crippled by Covid-19 until 2023, with visitors expected to shift focus from ticking off large events and busy city attractions for a gentler pace of travel.

New research from national tourism body VisitScotland suggests the pandemic has offered the chance to reboot the sector against the background of fewer visitors with high demands for Covid-safe experiences.

It also raises the prospect of travellers seeking out more personal accommodation, bespoke and private tours, unusual experiences and increased demand for rural and coastal destinations.

As a result, tourist hotspots such as Edinburgh – which last month alone recorded a two million slump in visitors – may have to battle to lure tourists from smaller, and less well-trod locations, while hoteliers conjure up new uses for empty spaces.

That could mean offering vacant hotel rooms as alternative workspaces or introducing sealed glass pods for restaurant dining – innovations which have already been introduced in some countries.

At the same time, predictions of rising numbers of visitors heading for Scotland’s more remote spots could spark concerns among some communities on high profile routes such as the North Coast 500, where an influx of post-lockdown visitors travelling by motorhome and wild campers resulting in litter and anti-social behaviour.

VisitScotland likens the impact of the pandemic to the disruptive effect of the 2008 financial crash which paved the way for a range of pioneering businesses such as Uber, AirB&B and WhatsApp.

It suggests the chaos of Covid-19 could create an innovative spark, with businesses striving to find inspired ways to attract visitors and encouraging spending.

“The opportunities in the new normal will see premium brands promoting high standards of health, safety, ethics and customer service, whereas smaller providers can project the warmth of human-ness through intimate ‘club’ style product offerings,” it adds.

“Premiumisation of individualism, personalisation, bespoke will be unique selling points to visitors looking for reassurance.”

The new paper, Navigating the New Normal, predicts growing demand for ‘spirit-lifting’ experiences, and increased numbers of younger domestic tourists who might otherwise have been expected to escape to European cities but instead will be seeking staycation breaks.

It concludes that the pandemic could actually bring benefits by encouraging more environmentally-friendly and mindful tourism, with potential visitors seeking to build on a new found appreciation for cleaner air, open space and nature.

That could lead to demand for ‘travel with purpose’ holidays, with tourists actively offsetting their stay with volunteering, rewilding and other “spirit-lifting” experiences like yoga or wild swimming.

The insight paper is launched today (Sunday 27th) to coincide with World Tourism Day. Its tone echoes a recent UN tourism policy brief which urged countries across the world to look at rebuilding the tourism sector in climate-friendly ways which can contribute to achieving sustainable development goals.

The UN brief also warned that up to 120 million direct tourism jobs around the world are at risk from the pandemic.

VisitScotland CEO Malcolm Roughead said that while the full impact of the pandemic on Scotland’s tourism sector is not yet clear, it is likely to run into ‘billions’ of pounds.

However, he stressed that the industry had in the past battled through the impact of 9/11, avian flu and volcanic ash clouds, and has strong foundations to support it through the current pandemic.

“We will get through it, I don’t think anyone knows how long it will take, but it’s a resilient industry,” he insisted.

“The work that has gone in over the years will stand us in good stead, because Scotland is a destination that people want to visit.”

Greater collaboration and flexibility among businesses is key to meeting post-Covid trends, including a rising number of Scots and other UK visitors exploring closer to home, he added.

“People are willing and wanting to travel but they want to do it safely and be reassured that all the protocols and guidelines are being observed,” he added.

“The ‘staycation’ has been around for a long time. What we are seeing is that figure will have increased dramatically this year.

“A lot of people have not had a holiday in Scotland for a long time and they are discovering their country and seeing how it has changed. They now want to see what else they can do, whether that’s at visitor attractions or new activities.”

Tourism contributes an estimated £11.2 billion through direct and indirect spending to the Scottish economy, with 218,000 people working in the sector, representing one in every 12 jobs and 8% of the workforce.

In half of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas, tourism-related jobs make up more than half of the entire workforce.

However, the sector has been shattered by the pandemic, with accommodation, hospitality and visitor attractions among the last to emerge from lockdown, deserted airports, foreign visitor numbers in shreds and uncertainty over the potential impact of future travel restrictions.

But while lifting of lockdown sparked a dash among homegrown tourists to visit remote locations, often travelling by motorhome, caravan or to wild camp, it also prompted concerns over littering, environmental damage and anti-social behaviour.

Earlier this month newly formed campaign group the Scottish Tourism Action Group (STAG) warned some rural areas are already struggling from ‘over-tourism’, with a lack of facilities for campervans, car parking, toilets and wild camping.

Mr Roughead said VisitScotland is working with NatureScot, the two national park organisations and other groups to tackle waste management issues.

“Part of it is dispersal, getting people to travel to other parts of Scotland,” he added. “It is also more about education than introducing restrictions.

“Many people were experiencing camping or motor homing for the first time and were not aware of how to conduct themselves. Equally we need to make sure the resources and amenities are available.

“If bins are overflowing, it’s not because people didn’t want to dispose of their rubbish, it’s that the facilities were not adequate.”

The new report says the pandemic offers opportunities to refocus Scottish tourism in order to meet ambitions in the national tourism strategy, Scotland Outlook 2030, published days before the nation went into lockdown.

It includes a vision for a more even spread of visitor spending across the country, tourism which benefits communities, and a reduced environmental impact.

Today’s report on tourism post Covid-19 comes against dire warnings from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that global international tourism is likely to suffer a 60% to 80% decline this year.

It also concedes that the virus is likely to lead to a patchwork re-opening of borders and a return to 2019 levels of tourism is not likely before 2023.

However, it adds: “There is now an opportunity to become a highly desirable and sustainable destination. We can reset tourism in our own image meeting responsible tourism goals which align with those of the consumer.

“The result will focus a shift from footfall and number of visitors towards prioritising spend per visitor, which provides an opportunity for the tourism sector to focus on improving the quality of experience versus the quantity of tourists.

“We can look towards slow tourism where in the short term we will see less travel but travelling better.”Mr Mr Roughead said the organisation was “desperately trying to help and support” tourism businesses.

However, he warned the winter months could be particularly difficult, and urged businesses to work collaboratively to cater for a new kind of post-Covid visitor.

“Businesses are resilient and passionate about what they do,” he said. “I have been impressed by how innovative new companies have been in terms of showing flexibility and diversifying into other areas.

“They are rethinking what the model is and finding new avenues for products and services.

“But we need to be able to do everything we can, so once we come through this, they are able to open up and increase capacity to take advantage of the visitors who want to come here.”

VisitScotland’s new research suggests the post-Covid visitor will prioritise flexibility, safety and hygiene, with demand expected to focus on rural and coastal locations rather than cities.

Mr Roughead added: “Social distancing is going to be there for quite some time. However, the reduced capacity that various places will have, opens up other opportunities.”

A Scottish Tourism Recovery Taskforce was launched in July, along with funding packages worth a total of £15 million for self-catering and hotel sector and an additional £3 million Bed and Breakfast Hardship Fund.

“There are really tough times to come with winter and we have got to try to support businesses so they have a fighting chance,” added Mr Roughead.

“I think we are beginning to see signs of recovery but not across the whole industry because not everywhere is up and running,” he continued.

“At the same time, thanks to the work we do in the UK and internationally, the foundations are in place.

“Scotland is still a desirable location.”