By Scott Wright

STAFF shortages arising from Brexit are undermining the international reputation of the Scottish tourism offer, according to the boss of a leading tour company who has called for a relaxation of immigration rules to the help boost the industry.

Rebecca Brooks, managing director of Abbey Travel, told The Herald that a lack of staff that can be traced to the UK’s exit from the European Union and subsequent clampdown on immigration means its partners in the tourism supply chain, such as hotels, restaurants, and experience providers, are only able to offer limited or inferior standards of service.

Ms Brooks told The Herald a change in immigration policy is needed to ensure the tourism and hospitality sector can access the staff it needs.

READ MORE: Dunblane hotel set for winter shutdown as cost crisis deepens

She said: “What we have seen is a very fragile supplier situation, which has made it really quite difficult for us to deliver in some cases what we would like to for our clients.

“That fragility manifests itself in our supply chain not having enough staff, not having properly trained staff, not being able to deliver the standard of service [expected].

“There is a dissatisfaction among some of our markets in terms of the standard in Scotland this year [with] suppliers not able to deliver the full service they would normally offer. It is a real challenge. We know that it is a combination, unpalatable as it may be to some areas of government, of the impact of Brexit, with an exodus of EU workforce and the difficulty of bringing an EU workforce in, and the recovery from the pandemic.

“Without some sort of immigration strategy that allows for [a] skilled workforce to come in and work in hospitality in particular… I think we are going to have an ongoing challenge.”

READ MORE: State-backed Scottish bank makes loss as pay-off for former boss revealed

Abbey provides tours to the UK and mainland Europe for visitors from around the world, with trips in Scotland accounting for around 70 per cent of the inbound travel it manages. Its partners run the full gamut of accommodation providers, from five-star hotels to eco-lodges, and experiential activities, from the Military Tattoo to walking tours.

Abbey, which runs its UK operation from Edinburgh, said tourists are making bookings later than before the pandemic began, and has seen stronger demand for holidays later in the season this year. But Ms Brooks fears many of the firm’s supply-chain partners will be shutting down for winter amid the well-documented cost pressures facing the industry.

The Herald reported on Saturday that the Stirling-based Fusion Group will at the end of this week close its Old Churches House in Dunblane for several months because it will not be able to run the hotel viably over winter. It will be the first time Fusion has closed the hotel since acquiring the property a decade ago, outside Covid-enforced restrictions.

Ms Brooks said: “The concern that we would have is the protection and the survival of our supply chain for 2023.”

READ MORE: New Mactaggart & Mickel boss reveals new direction after £50m deal

Asked if the current weakness of sterling versus the dollar would benefit the industry, Mr Brooks said it could help attract more tourists to Scotland and offset some of the higher costs the industry here is facing. But she cautioned that the weak pound also had the potential to make goods imported by the industry more expensive.

Ms Brooks, who noted that Abbey will this year see business return to 70 per cent of pre-Covid levels, said: “We anticipate next year will be better, but we still think that some of these challenges will be there. And we have a concern over our supply chain on which we are entirely reliant, because we don’t make handbags and shoes – we sell a visitor experience for international visitors. We need our supply chain to survive through the winter.”

Ms Brooks added: “People need to have confidence in the product, and I do think there is some damage to brand Scotland this year, just from the perspective of suppliers not being able to deliver well enough.”

Ms Brooks fears it will be hard to tempt staff back to the industry back who moved to new roles since the pandemic, undoing the strides made by the sector in improving pay and conditions before Covid struck.

Her comments came as the UK Government rejected a move by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to seek approval of a scheme to make it easier for firms in rural areas to recruit staff from overseas. The Scottish visa pilot proposed that people based abroad could recruited if they earned less than the required threshold to obtain a visa under UK Government regulations.

The Home Office said the Scottish Government should use its devolved powers to tackle depopulation.

Ms Brooks said: “One of the biggest things government can do… really is about how we can get a workforce in. My own sense is that it is about stimulating overseas workers that want to come and live and work in the UK and have a job and career in travel and tourism. Realistically, the reliance on the domestic workforce, which is what a lot of businesses have had to do this year, has not delivered the goods. And I think that is a real challenge.”

Noting that the sympathy international visitors had initially felt towards the industry as it emerged from Covid has “abated now”, she said: “We have got a double whammy and it needs to be acknowledged. It is not all about Covid recovery – it is the legacy of Brexit in that sense.”