Tourism is one of the largest industries in Scotland, supporting around 200,000 jobs and contributing more than £11 billion ($17.7bn) annually to the economy, according to government statistics.
The country welcomed more than 2.5 million overseas visitors last year and may see even more in 2014 as it hosts a preponderance of international events like the Commonwealth Games, Ryder Cup and MTV EMA Awards.
But what will happen if Scotland votes for independence from the United Kingdom Thursday?
Mum’s the word at tourism board Visit Scotland, where spokeswoman Louise Purves says it would be “inappropriate to comment on the current political situation.”
“Scotland has inspired people to visit for the last 200 years and there is no evidence from our partners in the industry that they are being adversely affected by the current political discussion,” she says.
Visit Scotland’s not-so-subtle advertising campaign under “the Year of Homecoming” in 2014 angered those in the Better Together camp, who believe Scotland should remain in the UK. The leader of Better Together, Alistair Darling, accused the tourism board of producing pro-independence TV advertising to advance the “Yes” cause when it enticed visitors to come with the tagline: “You too can say, ‘yes, I was there’.”
Whether such wording was intentional or not, the wider tourism industry remains divided on the issue of independence. A secret ballot of 500 delegates at the Scottish tourism industry’s annual conference in March found that 60 percent of the influencers would be voting for Scotland to remain with the UK, while just 32 percent said they would vote for independence. Many expressed concerns that the Scottish Government had not made a financial case for independence.
More recent public opinion polls indicate that there has been a gradual shift in Scotland since March toward independence, with the referendum result now on a knife edge.
So how do potential visitors feel?
Tourism market research specialists LJ Research conducted a survey last month to see if potential visitors truly cared whether Scotland was independent or not. The result was a collective shoulder shrug.
Of the nearly 700 recent UK visitors it polled, 84 percent said their decision to visit would be totally unaffected by the referendum results.
“These findings suggest that Scottish tourism businesses don’t have to worry too much about the outcome of the referendum,” notes Sean Morgan, managing director of LJ Research. “That said, tourism businesses that have high exposure to English markets should tailor their marketing messages and operational services to ensure that those from south of the border are made to feel unequivocally welcome.”
English respondents were twice as likely as international visitors to claim that they felt less inclined to visit an independent Scotland.
“Respondents were very concerned about border controls, visa requirements and currency exchange rates that may come with Scotland splitting up from the UK,” Morgan says. “It is likely that Scotland’s tourism industry will suffer if it cannot continue using Sterling as this factor will likely act as a barrier among inbound visitors’ decision.”
Pros and Cons of Independence
Joe Goldblatt, an expert in the field of event tourism in Edinburgh, is less concerned about border and visa issues. He believes tourism to Scotland will boom if independence wins the vote.
“In the short term, tourism will dramatically increase in Scotland following independence due to the enthusiasm and interest in Scottish ancestry and culture,” he explains. “In the long term, tourism will grow even stronger due to easier and better visa regulations being put in place that will welcome more tourists to Scotland and encourage them to extend their stay to explore different parts of its beautiful land.”
The Scottish National Party, or SNP, asserts that there is yet another benefit to independence that could lure more tourists in the long run: lower tourism taxes. The UK currently has one of the highest levels of Air Passenger Duty, or APD, in the world, and the Scottish Government has proposed cutting APD levels by half following a Yes vote.
“Westminster has already admitted that the powers to reverse this tourism tax simply won’t be devolved to Scotland in the event of a No vote. A Yes vote is our one opportunity to lower and eventually get rid of this tax, ensuring cheaper holidays for families and boosting the Scottish economy,” Chic Brodie, SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament for the South of Scotland, stated last month.
Brodie believes the current level of APD will cost Scotland £200 million ($322m) per year in lost tourism spend by 2016.
Better Together paints a different picture of an independent Scotland where a lack of free and easy movement of people between Scotland and the rest of the UK could hamper tourist flows – particularly along the border – at a loss of millions of dollars.
Scotland, it says, also benefits from the global recognition and international profile of the UK, as well as the full weight of the UK’s 14,000 diplomatic staff across 267 offices, who routinely promote exports, destinations and the Scottish brand. Optimistic predictions for a separate Scotland, meanwhile, call for just 70 to 90 overseas offices.