Tourism is a success story in Scotland but there’s a growing mood that visitors cause more trouble than they are worth. As the holiday season begins, Writer at Large Neil Mackay, discovers how we can make tourism work better for all of Scotland.

SUCCESS brings its own problems. Just ask Malcolm Roughead, the man who runs VisitScotland. He’s sold Scotland to the world and made the country outperform the rest of the UK, year after year, when it comes to attracting visitors from overseas. Apart from London, Edinburgh is the leading UK destination. Scotland regularly appears in ‘Top Five’ lists internationally as a world class holiday spot.

It’s little wonder, really. Think of the nation’s landscape, history, shopping, sports, food and drink, and culture. It’s a great all-round package for a traveller. Tourism is now the third most important pillar of the Scottish economy after financial services and energy. There’s 14,145 tourism businesses in the country employing 207,000 people, that’s one in 12 jobs - making the sector worth £11.3 billion.

But back to those problems. When tourism takes off in a country, it’s not long until folk living in the hot spots get a little peeved. That problem even has a name ‘Doxey’s Irritation Index’ - a term academics use to explain the four stages towns and cities go through when tourists start to arrive. First there’s euphoria - it’s great to be noticed after all; then comes apathy - tourists get boring; then irritation - why is my morning train filled with foreigners; and finally, antagonism - I hate tourists.

Streets get crowded, roads get jammed, properties get bought over for tourist lets skewing the housing market. Look at what’s happening in Edinburgh and Skye right now - the two parts of the country really feeling the pressure of being beloved by tourists. This summer Skye will be teeming with visitors, roads will all but come to a standstill. It’ll drive locals crazy. In Edinburgh, Airbnb is squeezing locals out of the property market - turning residential homes into tourists lets and jacking house prices and rents. No wonder some call it Unfairbnb. Airbnb has doubled in Edinburgh since 2016, and there’s now one Airbnb let in the city for every 48 residents - London has one for every 105 citizens. Only a few days ago, the head of the Fringe Shona McCarthy, warned of Edinburgh becoming ‘seriously in danger of being anti-tourist’. Edinburgh and Skye may not be Barcelona where graffiti has been sprayed on walls telling tourists to go home, but there’s a growing animosity to the way the success of being a great travel destination has affected the lives of ordinary people.

As the summer holiday season starts to get underway, some of the nation’s leading industry experts have spoken of the need to remodel how we ‘do’ tourism in Scotland - in order to stop visitors antagonising locals. Tourism needs to be fair and to bring added value to the communities which feel disrupted. It looks like government will have to get involved - in an industry which traditionally has seen the state pretty hands-off. Money needs spent to offset the disruption tourism brings, and that’s going to cause a headache in Holyrood. There’s other big ideas out there too when it comes to changing the face of Scottish tourism. ‘Wellness’ - the whole mind, body, spirit trend - is the next big thing, along with ‘Green Tourism’. What country is better placed to exploit those trends than Scotland, with towering mountains, beautiful lochs and rugged coasts. But will even greater tourism success just bring more headaches as ‘undiscovered’ parts of the country begin to attract more visitors?

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Here, we look at some of the big ideas being discussed to change the face of Scottish tourism for the better.


The trick that needs pulled off in Scottish tourism is dispersal. How do you get travellers out of places like Edinburgh, Glasgow, Skye and Inverness and into parts of the nation untouched by tourism? Dr Andrew Martin runs the Scottish Centre for Tourism, operating out of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. He wants to see ‘tourism refresh the parts of Scotland other industries cannot reach - like Scotland beyond the Central Belt - which struggle as they’re remote and don’t have other big industries’.

Our rural communities often have a depopulation problem, and Martin says growing tourism will create jobs and see people staying rather than leaving. He also thinks the parts of Scotland which are tourist success stories need to ‘take less people - but get them to spend more … bank where we are now and grow the spend per head which will take the pressure off the infrastructure and deliver greater economic benefit per tourist’. That means more high quality hotels in our hot spots, not cheap tourist traps.

That could start pushing visitors out to other parts of the country where tourists travel less - like Martin’s own patch in Aberdeen and the north east. Tourism in Scotland is patchy, he says.


Glenfinnan is currently experiencing the Harry Potter effect. Like many parts of Scotland, film and TV have drawn visitors to the Highland village. Outlander had a similar effect on places like Doune Castle. The Glenfinnan viaduct appears on screen as the Hogwarts Express chugs across it. Crowds are gathering to take pictures and soak up the scenery - but the village has only 150 residents and a very small carpark. It’s getting a little unmanageable.

The Scottish government’s relatively small Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund handed out £3m in its first round of grants to 18 projects across the country. Money was set aside for more parking at Glenfinnan. But really, that’s just going to make tourists lives better - rather than the lives of locals. Dr Marjory Brewster, who lecturers in tourism at Queen Margaret University, says: ‘The infrastructure fund seems to focus on the tourists and it seems to overlook the communities and the impact that tourism might have on them.’

Government needs to help local communities ‘benefit directly from tourism’ - one way of doing that, says Brewster, is to help small business set up. If people are making money and getting jobs from tourism, they’re unlikely to see it as disruptive and negative.


Brewster’s real field of expertise is Scotland’s highland games. In fact, she’s something of a world authority on this traditional part of our national culture. So, she’s a little bemused why more isn’t made of the 100-plus highland games across the country when it comes to tourism.

Authenticity is the buzz word in business these days - but nowhere is it more important than in tourism. Travellers want to feel as if they have experienced the real Scotland. ‘Highland games are not promoted for tourists,’ Brewster says, ‘but these are the kind of events that are traditional and have been there for hundreds of years. It’s an honest authentic experience.’

Again, pushing travellers out to rural communities where games go on, would see money cascade further afield and ease pressure on existing hot spots struggling to cope with visitor numbers.


AT the moment, Skye is a laboratory for tourism experts studying what happens when an area takes off internationally. Marina Martinolli set up the Skye Project - otherwise known as the Skye Tourism Economic Impact Study - from her base at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Idyllic Instagram images going viral online, Outlander - the Skye Boat Song features as the series’ title music - as well as the opening of the Skye bridge to the mainland, and the removal of tolls, turbocharged tourism on the island. The economy has boomed, but infrastructure is creaking, particularly when it comes to roads and housing.

In June 2016, there were 273 Airbnb rentals on Skye, as of June last year there were 976. ‘Airbnb has exploded and it’s a huge issue,’ she says. There’s been estimates that one in eight properties on Skye is an Airbnb.

‘For locals who want to buy properties, value has increased and they can no longer afford the same housing they used to,’ she says. Housing is also in short supply, and there are fewer properties to rent. Young people are leaving. Seasonal hospitality workers sometimes have to camp. ‘There’s resentment in certain areas,’ says Martinolli.

‘The practical way to address it is to invest in the island, invest in the infrastructure so it can support the number of visitors coming to the island.’ Martinolli says the rural tourism infrastructure fund has projects on Skye for improved visitor parking at the Old Man of Storr and the Fairy Pools. Yet there’s a homelessness problem on the island. ‘There are families waiting to be housed on Skye,’ says Martinolli, ‘and that’s a huge issue. There’s a lack of funding.’

There’s calls for a serious discussion about a tourism tax in the area, charging visitors to Skye, and the reintroduction of a levy on the bridge for non-residents - and that any such money should stay on the island. Current taxes raised on the island go to central government and so aren’t directly spent on Skye’s needs when it comes to tourism.

There is so much potential for Skye,’ Martinolli says. ‘The worry is that it just becomes a tourist attraction and nothing else. We don’t want to go down that road. There are real people and communities and they have to be supported - they have to get benefits from tourism, not just the negative impact. If investment goes back into the island then it’s a win-win for everyone.’ At the moment, though, she says, the big winners ‘are the Airbnbs of this world’. Success needs to tickle down.


‘Why do we continue to market Edinburgh?’ asks Professor John Lennon, founder of the Moffat Centre for Travel and Tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University. Lennon is seen as Scotland’s number one authority on tourism. He was instrumental in the creation of the North Coast 500 - known as Scotland’s Route 66.

People will come to Edinburgh no matter what - it’s like London, New York or Paris. ‘Why don’t we move that marketing budget, that development budget, out to other parts of Scotland where tourism could have a real impact,’ Lennon says.

‘We really need to rebalance the impacts of tourism, and where we get over-demand and all the impact that goes with that, like litter and traffic. Think about what imaginative marketing could do with undiscovered Scotland,’ he says.

Lennon points to Italian tourism - where visitors can enjoy the hustle and bustle of big cities like Rome, or wile away the days in sleepy villages enjoying local food and wine. That’s a model Scotland could follow.

Lennon does though caution against ‘the Scottish disease of bashing success’. His North Coast 500 project - which has dispersed tourists to parts of Scotland rarely visited - has come in for criticism over busier roads. ‘I’m scratching my head and wondering what I was supposed to achieve there by developing a route,’ he says. If the roads weren’t busier then the project would have been a failure, he says. Other countries, like Ireland he says, would ‘dance a jig’ over any tourist success story.


It’s everywhere these days. The ‘wellness’ trend has taken over just about every aspect of life from work to play to food and travel. Dr Marjory Brewster says ‘there’s a wealth of opportunity’ for Scotland to exploit the new trend. ‘Sensory tourism, being outdoors, feeling the wind, smelling the sea - many of these trendy aspects of tourism are associated with the rural environment,’ she says.

Wildlife and a wild landscape are what wellness-tourists are seeking - Scotland with its scenery fits the bill perfectly. Again, this could all help spread tourism around the country rather than leaving it concentrated in a few hot spots and cities.

Chris Greenwood, head of research with VisitScotland, says wellness ‘is the big growth area. It’s indicative of the way society globally is going, people feel more stressed’. Successful tourism follows the lifestyles people aspire to. This wellness trend can also help with another problem when it comes to the balance of Scottish tourism - that we’re not a ‘year round’ destination as yet - we’re still dependent on those vital summer months.

Wellness could transform something like Scotland’s Dark Skies tourism - which sees travellers star-gazing in places like Dumfries and Galloway - from a niche activity to an all year round staple of the industry.


‘Visitors want to enrich their lives and this is expressed through concerns about the environment,’ says Greenwood. ‘They want to be seen as travellers, not tourists - they want to meet local people and see the real country.’ Green tourism is yet another driver of widening tourist destinations across the country.

Greenwood’s boss, Malcolm Roughead, chief executive of VisitScotland, says ‘sustainability’ is one of the big buzz words in tourism today. ‘How good would it be if we were the first country in the world to come out with an energy efficient way of getting round the North Coast 500?’ Roughead asks. ‘Or if we could link up charging points and electric vehicles with rail travel?’

The idea of using green transport in Scotland as a way of ‘mitigating carbon emissions as a kind of payback’ for visitors who have made longhaul flights to holiday in Scotland, would be attractive to consumers in our increasingly green world, says Roughead.

Scotland’s wild weather even adds to the appeal when it comes to green tourism. It feels rugged, it accentuates nature. ‘Our location just adds to our attraction,’ says Greenwood.


High VAT and the cost of non-domestic rates are hurting tourist businesses, says Dr Andrew Martin of the Scottish Centre for Tourism. ‘There’s good money to be made in the industry, however currently the winners are the government and the country as we are delivering jobs and money into the economy, but the operators could do with help,’ he says.

Martin feels ‘anti-business’ policies need addressed. Some tourist companies need relief to stay in business, he says. Dr Majory Brewster says: ‘Most of the businesses involved in tourism are micro and small organisations, but they bring in substantial amounts of money for the country.’ They need support, she says. ‘Things can be quite challenging. There’s a high percentage which don’t last more than two years.’


Everyone in Scottish tourism fears Brexit. The industry depends on foreign workers. ‘Brexit creates a shadow,’ says Professor John Lennon. Both tourists and foreign workers worry ‘will I get in’, he says. ‘Tourism is quite fragile,’ Lennon adds. ‘If people think there is any uncertainty about visiting a destination they will chose not to go. It’s an emotional industry, it is not based on logic.’

Brexit is affecting investment. If the pound tanks foreign workers won’t just leave because of the unwelcome atmosphere in the UK, they’ll leave because they can earn more money in another country. Food prices could rocket in the event of Brexit as well. Costs will be passed on to consumers like tourists.

‘We need to make very clear to the international market that at least Scotland, if not the UK, is open for business,’ says Prof Lennon. ‘Let’s stand above this narrow-minded parochial nonsense that is Brexit.’