It was among the sectors hit hardest by coronavirus restrictions. Now it can dare to look forward with confidence.

New figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have underlined the recovery of Scottish tourism from the pandemic and raised the prospect of a new era of growth, at least as far as international visitors to the country are concerned.

The 2023 International Passenger Survey by the ONS shows that people from overseas made nearly four million visits to Scotland in 2023. Crucially for the tourism industry, this number was 15% higher than in 2019, the year before the pandemic struck, while visitor spend was up 41%.

Scotland also attracted the highest proportion of overseas holiday visits among all the nations and regions of the UK.

For a sector that was laid so low by the dramatic curtailment of air travel in the depths of the coronavirus crisis, not to mention the myriad restrictions imposed on tourist attractions around Scotland to curb the spread of Covid-19, the figures must seem especially sweet.

READ MORE: Scotland's 'most profitable sector by far' revealed

Indeed, it was little wonder that the report was hailed by Malcolm Roughead, outgoing chief executive of VisitScotland, as a “turning point” for the industry in Scotland.

“They [the statistics] are further evidence of the strength of Scotland’s offering and the clear desire for people across the world to experience this, with record demand from North America,” said Mr Roughead, who will retire later this year and be succeeded by Vicki Miller, currently director of marketing and digital at the tourism agency.

“Our international visitors are hugely important to Scotland’s tourism industry, as well as the wider economy. They often stay longer and spend more, generating several billions of pounds annually, supporting a wide range of businesses, jobs, and communities across the country. With many businesses still recovering from the challenges of the pandemic and current economic climate, this will be welcome news.”

Encouragingly for the industry, the momentum appears to have continued building this year. Mr Roughead said early feedback from tourism businesses, the travel trade and VisitScotland’s airline partners has signalled “increasing interest for visiting at different times of the year and exploring lesser-known locations”. This seems especially encouraging for a sector that has long strived to elongate the tourism season and promote more of what the country has to offer.

READ MORE: Outgoing VisitScotland chief looks back on highs and lows

“By encouraging regional and seasonal spread we can ensure Scotland remains a competitive year-round, must-see, must-return destination,” Mr Roughead added.

Yet for all there are reasons for the industry to be optimistic, challenges remain. While tourists from key markets such as North America are returning in healthy numbers, the all-important domestic market - still the biggest part of tourism in Scotland - is far from firing on all cylinders.

Figures for the home tourism market for 2023 have still to be released, but the latest domestic sentiment tracker from VisitScotland, published last week, provides a useful snapshot on the current state of play.

Based on data collected from fieldwork carried out between February and April this year, the report found that the cost of living crisis is continuing to strongly influence domestic trip taking, with no clear changes as to the personal impact it is having on people.

The report indicated there has been some improvement in terms of perceptions of the crisis. However it found that more than half of the UK and Scottish population anticipate that concerns over finances will impact their trip intentions, as people look to spend less on eating out, choose cheaper accommodation, and look for more free things to do.

READ MORE: VisitScotland names Vicki Miller as new chief executive

The ongoing influence of the cost of living crisis was also underlined as the report found trip lengths in Scotland are more likely to be shorter than longer breaks this year, as well as an increasing intention among tourists to stay with friends or relatives to save money when visiting the country. Intention to stay in a hotel declined for a third year in a row with fewer people also planning to book a guesthouse. Intention to stay in an Airbnb property also rose.

On this evidence, it seems there is still some way to go before the domestic market returns to full strength in Scotland.

The UK Government is at pains to say its “plan” for the economy is working – official figures published yesterday stated inflation had fallen to 2.3% in April – but there can be little doubt that consumers are continuing to feel the impact of the protracted cost of living crisis, which is surely affecting the domestic tourism market.

The rate of inflation is easing but the price rises during month after month of sky-high inflation are baked in. Moreover, with inflation still above target at 2.3%, prices are continuing to rise, while the successive hikes in interest rates imposed over the last two and half years have ramped up mortgage costs for hundreds of thousands of homeowners. Yesterday’s smaller-than-expected decrease in inflation is likely to have reduced hopes of a June cut to interest rates.

Such pressures will surely be weighing on the minds of consumers as they contemplate whether they can afford day trips or holidays in the UK this year.

READ MORE: Golf resort Trump Turnberry appoints new general manager

At the same time, tourism industry businesses are continuing to feel the pressure from higher costs. And the self-catering industry in Scotland retains deep concerns over the cost and complexity of a new licensing regime, which it argues is causing many accommodation providers to exit the sector.

Marc Crothall, chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, said the ONS figures on international passengers “offer a tremendous boost and real optimism for Scotland’s tourism industry after a monumentally difficult period”. But he emphasised that the Scottish Government “must ensure the right supportive policies are put in place, along with the optimum conditions for business to enable sustainable profit growth and investment in their own products and people so that the quality of the end-to-end experience Scotland offers improves”.

Mr Crothall added: “We cannot afford to be complacent and assume demand will continue to grow. Competition is strong and maintaining price competitiveness continues to get tougher. Continued investment in infrastructure is critical if Scotland is to continue to be a high-demand destination and we must also ensure that marketing supports sectoral growth. Tourism and hospitality continues to drive local and national economic growth; it is the heartbeat of every destination.”