The chief executive of VisitScotland is poised to step down after an eventful tenure that began during the foot and mouth crisis and moved through the fallout from 9/11, the Icelandic ash cloud, avian flu and the coronavirus pandemic.

But for all the challenges the Scottish tourism industry has endured over the past two decades Malcolm Roughead, who will retire later this year, remains convinced of its ability to respond to even the toughest conditions.

“Every year it feels like you are fighting something,” Mr Roughead said. “But the positive side of that, I think, is you see just how resilient the industry is and how resilient people are. There’s a real sense of coming together in these crisis situations. The most recent was obviously Covid, when people went above and beyond just to help neighbours, colleagues, all of that.”

Mr Roughead joined VisitScotland in 2001, the first of several new directors to arrive shortly after a period of significant upheaval at the former Scottish Tourist Board.

The new directors, which also included Hugh Hall, Willie Macleod and chief executive Philip Riddle, were installed after the previous regime was ousted in light of a scathing report into the organisation by accountancy firm PwC.

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The report, commissioned in 2000 after figures revealed a sharp fall in foreign visitors to Scotland in 1999, criticised the performance of the Scottish Tourist Board and found evidence of “confusion and ambiguity” among the senior management. It called for a board shake-up and a name change to VisitScotland.

“It was good for me, because it allowed me a three-month period to get round the country, talking to groups and communities, because obviously I had no background in tourism and had lived and worked out of Scotland for 20 years,” Mr Roughead, who joined VisitScotland from Guinness, recalled.

“The nice thing about it is you come in with open eyes. You have not been part of anything and you can bring different experiences with you [to the role].

“I lived in South Africa from 92 to 96 and there were challenges down there with the first elections after Nelson Mandela had been released. You have all those different cultures you were getting exposed to, which I think is a very healthy thing. I had lived in Germany for seven and half years so again it was very different. That was at the time that the Berlin Wall [was coming down].

“I actually thought I might get posted to Hong Kong [at time of handover from the UK to China] in 1997 but there you go!”

Mr Roughead added: “You learn as you go and you pick up what hopefully is best practice from others, and you see how others do things and others look at things. You get a bit more of a worldly view, which is helpful particularly in our industry.”

While it was a clean slate for VisitScotland when he joined, it was also a baptism of fire for its new bosses, with travel restrictions in place in parts of rural Scotland because of the foot and mouth crisis.

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Ultimately, it was the first of many huge challenges Mr Roughead would face in his time at the publicly funded agency. Shortly after foot and mouth, there was the fallout from the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US. Later on came the after-effects of a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010, the avian flu outbreak and, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought international tourism to its knees.

All this has played out against the rapid advance of technology and growing awareness of climate change and the increasing requirement for sustainability within the industry.

“Technology has been a huge driver of change,” Mr Roughead said. “If you think back to the early days of and where we are at now in terms of artificial intelligence, all the way through booking engines, smart phones, the industry generally globally has had to adapt and adopt.

“I think what we see there is a huge amount of change in the way people are doing business, but also their ability to reach audiences. The traditional channels have in many ways been usurped by social media, content-driven distributors. That in itself brings opportunities as much as challenges. That has been the biggest change.”

He also underlined the importance of sustainability and responsible tourism as concern grows over climate change.

Asked how tourism operators are responding to the environmental challenge, Mr Roughead said: “They get it, but we have got to make it easy for people to understand. Sometimes the language is a barrier, so it is just basically: ‘What do I have to do?’ We have a toolkit on that people can refer to, but if you are to go through it, a lot of people will say: ‘I am already doing most of that. I am already recycling [and] I am managing waste’. It is all those little things that actually make a difference when you bring the bulk of the industry with you.

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“That will be a big focus going forward and it is also what people are expecting. If you look at the backlash against greenwashing, which has taken place and a number of organisations have been called out by people who are annoyed, angry about the claims being made, there is a real demand there.

“You see it also in choices. People are looking for authentic experiences, immersive experiences but also eco-friendly accommodation, travel. I think that is going to grow and grow. But you can see how people are responding to it.”

Perhaps more pressingly for tourism operators in Scotland, trading at the present time is being hampered by a long-running cost crisis. There are also potential challenges in the form of the introduction of tourist taxes by local authorities.

Asked to sum up the mood in the tourism industry at the dawn of a new season, Mr Roughead said: “It’s a mixed bag. If you look at the visitor numbers and the visitor spend, particularly on the international side, they are going to reach a record high. That is also in real terms, after you adjust it for inflation.

“My guys always hate me forecasting, but the ‘Roughead forecast model’ is going to come in at about £3.5 billion for last year, which would be the highest ever.

“That’s about four million overnights so, the demand is there. Now, you could say there were some favourable winds because the exchange rate was very favourable.

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“North America was very strong, Europe came back a bit – [in the] last quarter it was about 51 per cent of all trips, with France particularly strong and Germany still recovering a little bit. And we forget they have their own issues with inflation and their own economies.

“But the UK market is flat and that is the cost-of-living issues kicking in, people obviously tightening their belts. [They are] still travelling but not [for] as long and [they are] not spending as much as they normally would do. And then on top of that are the issues around the cost of doing business, which have been well documented and eroding margins.

“Then, just layer on top of that a shortage of labour, which means that not every establishment can be open seven days a week or do the normal hours that they had.

“Clearly, as the economy improves… then that sort of situation will improve as well. But the big challenge is to maintain value for money so that the quality of the experience doesn’t suffer.”

Reflecting on the progress made by VisitScotland over his tenure, Mr Roughead also said the feeling of flatness that pervaded VisitScotland shortly before his arrival was gradually replaced with positivity, though Covid did put that to the test.

“There was a sense of what one can do, particularly when you are working in partnership and collaborating with people,” he said. “Again, over the years, that has developed into what is now euphemistically called Team Scotland.

“That whole notion of bringing in skill sets from around different organisations, even internally within VisitScotland we now look at things on a project basis as opposed to a vertical that says: ‘I’m in marketing’ or ‘I’m in communications’ or ‘I’m in research”. It is how do we bring [our] cumulative skills to best effect. That’s a culture change for many, a change of mindset but actually see you get better results, and everybody is part of it. We all feel we have contributed to the net effect and that is positive.”

Although it was announced in January that Mr Roughead will be stepping down, he will not be leaving VisitScotland imminently. He will be around for the handover when a new chairman come in to replace Lord Thurso, who steps down at the end of March, with Mr Roughead’s exact departure then depending on when his own successor can start.

“It will definitely be by the end of September,” he said. “And then it will really be up to what the new chair and the new chief executive can do, whenever they start.

“We will play it by ear.”