European visitors make up a small part of Scotland's tourism pie — but they are still an important part. Like other big geopolitical changes, Brexit offers up plenty of uncertainty, which often isn't great for tourism.
Since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union more than three years ago, the country’s tourism industry has become something of a battleground for competing views over its future.
While the depreciation of the pound has made going on holiday more expensive those coming into the country have found their money has gone a lot further.
Initially this sparked a mini boom with 2017 becoming a record year but since then numbers have slipped back proving that growth — with its links to wider geopolitical and economic concerns — is not guaranteed.
The problem is the euphoria of cheap travel has gradually worn off. This might not matter in places like London with its thousands of flights a day, but its not the same for other parts of the UK.
Scotland, for example, takes a relatively small proportion of the UK’s total tourism numbers and its tourist board is trying to counter the “uncertainty and misinformation around Brexit” through a new campaign aimed at European visitors.
VisitScotland has created videos covering some of the most frequently asked questions regarding traveling to the country, post-Brexit, in multiple languages, showing the differences between whether the UK leaves with or without a deal.
The reason for producing the videos is that the organization was getting feedback from tour operators and travel agents in Europe about the lack of information and despite there being no shortage of Brexit coverage “it was quite a lot of work for potential visitors to gather it all together” Judy Mariëns, senior market manager for Europe at VisitScotland told Skift.
The most recent tourism figures illustrate the difficulty for Scotland’s tourism industry. Overall international numbers have been on a broadly upward trend since 2012 but the most recently quarterly results show a sharp decline. European inbound spend fell 59 percent with visits down 45 percent.
“We’re seeing a reduction in European arrivals, potentially due to the fact that mainland Europe sees UK in a negative light as a result of Brexit. Scotland has a strong, resilient tourism industry committed to success and driving our national growth ambition, however the challenges that we’re experiencing at the moment compounded by the headwinds of Brexit are taking our industry to a very fragile place,” Marc Crothall, CEO of the Scottish Tourism Alliance told Skift in an email interview.
At the moment EU visitors make up a small piece of Scotland’s overall tourism pie —dwarfed by domestic trips and visitors from the rest of the UK — but they still contributed $1.4 billion (£1.1 billion) to the economy in 2018.
Setting Out Scotland’s Plans
Earlier this month the Scottish government set out its agenda for the coming year and tourism features pretty prominently.
“Scotland’s tourism industry is an important contributor to the Scottish economy, supporting over 200,000 jobs. We will provide a package of support for the tourism sector to minimise the burden of regulation, support the growth of a skilled, professional and inclusive workforce and help the industry to deliver high quality and memorable experiences for visitors,” the document said.
The Scottish government will follow this up with a more detailed tourism strategy for the country, which will go into more detail about how it can support the industry
However, it has already divided opinion with a couple of decisions.
The first is retaining an Air Departure Tax mainly because of environmental reasons, which opponents claim is a barrier to growth. Airports have spent a considerable amount of time lobbying to get it changed but their efforts seem to have failed.
The second is more contentious because it means a new law, what the Scottish government is calling a Transient Visitor Levy i.e. a tourism tax. This will create “a discretionary power for local authorities to apply a tax or levy on overnight visitor stays” and provide a “a means of responding to some of the local pressures tourism may bring whilst also allowing local tourism offers to be enhanced.”
Tourism taxes are popping up all over the world and are potential solutions to overtourism. Politicians in the Edinburgh have already signalled their intention to install one but will have to wait until the Scottish parliament passes the required legislation.
The non-profit European Tourism Association, which has conducted research into tourism taxes across Europe, welcomed the decision to conduct “a thorough review as to whether local governments should be given the authority to implement [one]”.
But not everyone is happy. The Scottish Tourism Alliance pointed to the recently released World Economic Forum’s tourism rankings, which showed the UK had slipped from fifth to sixth in the overall competitiveness rankings and was actually last out of 140 countries when it came to pricing.
“Conditions cannot show more clearly that this is not the time for local authorities to consider implementing a tourist tax which could seriously impact on Scotland’s attractiveness and positioning within the global market and harm local economies and communities,” the organization said.
It certainly is a precarious time for the UK. New Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised to finally leave the European Union with or without a deal — or “do or die” in his own language” — by October 31 but a recent setback has prompted speculation of a general election or even another extension, meaning the process might go on into 2020 and beyond.
Brexit won’t stop tourist from visiting Scotland or other parts of the UK but its reverberations have the potential to make or break the sector.
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Photo credit: Duncansby Head is the most northeasterly part of the British mainland. VisitScotland is trying to safeguard its European market. Kenny Lam / VisitScotland