There’s no point attracting tourists if local infrastructure isn’t up to it

WHEN Burns wished for the power to see ourselves as ithers see us, he wasn’t pondering ways to boost the Scottish tourist industry. But when it comes to promoting the nation’s attractions – from Rabbie’s old haunts to Highland hills and world-class museums – a fresh perspective could be exactly what’s needed.

Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement this week of a £6 million rural tourism infrastructure fund couldn’t compete with childcare and cheap energy when it came to column inches. “Infrastructure” is a very long and boring word to put in a headline, after all. But the human experiences to which it relates – from travelling and camping to eating, drinking and even peeing – could make the difference between tourists raving about their trip to Scotland, and them saying “It was great, but…”

Long gone are the days when a hotel guest or intrepid traveller scribbled a note in a visitor’s book and went quietly on their way. Now, if they have a complaint or even just a niggle about their stay, they can air it publicly in an instant, or bash out a TripAdvisor rant on the way home.

As a small and proud nation, it’s easy to get defensive about criticism

As a small and proud nation, it’s easy to get defensive about criticism. And of course it’s simply not possible to please all of the people all the time. But if we’re to keep attracting more and more visitors, and in the process boost our economy, we need to be honest about where we let ourselves down. It might be small but important details, like poor sign-posting or a lack of recycling facilities, or bigger challenges, like fragile transport links or barriers to access for disabled people.

Rather than wait for non-Scottish visitors to highlight these problems, and do so on forums where everyone else can read about them, wouldn’t it be better if we could report them ourselves, directly to those with the power to make changes? A central feedback facility spanning all aspects of tourism could maximise the potential for finding joined-up solutions. At a time when local authorities are prioritising frontline services, and national heritage bodies are haemorrhaging members (some rather more quickly than others), it’s vitally important that tourism infrastructure doesn’t fall too far down the list of priorities.

So the launch of the new fund should be welcomed, even if it all sounds a bit technical and abstract compared to the more flashy good-news stories about new multimillion-pound visitor centres or Outlander fans flocking to obscure castles. After all, there’s no point having these attractions if people can’t easily get to them, or park at them, or find a welcoming place to have lunch after visiting them.

Sometimes those closest to a place can only see part of the picture

The Scottish Government says it will seek input from communities and the tourism industry to identify projects needing support, but sometimes those closest to a place can only see part of the picture. Those living or working around tourist attractions know where they are located, for a start – it is outsiders who are best qualified to advise whether signposting is adequate. They also might not consider issues such as the provision of public toilets until it’s too late. Witness the situation on Arran, where the recent closure of all public facilities due to council cuts has led to local businesses being swamped by people popping in to spend a penny, but not any pounds. There may have been a public toilet at Blackwaterfoot until recently, but as a tourist I can assure you it was quite literally bogging.

Of course, the needs of tourists and the interests of the local community overlap in many crucial ways. As the SNP and Greens battle it out over the newly devolved aviation tax, the argument is being framed as one of tourism vs the environment, and the interests of the few (well-off frequent fliers) vs the many. In a nutshell, it’s goodbye air passenger duty, hello air departure tax, and goodbye to half of that new devolved tax by the end of the parliamentary session if the SNP get their way. The Greens object to this plan on the grounds that it’s not very green at all, and argue the tax revenue should be invested in improving local transport. But it’s worth remembering that visitors use local buses and trains too. There’s no point luring them to Scotland with slightly cheaper flights and then forcing them to grapple with a shoddy public transport system when they get here.

There’s also a much more serious dimension to rural connectivity. When hotelier Shamsul Arefin was convicted of human trafficking two years ago, after enslaving four workers at the Stewart Hotel in Appin, many asked how on earth this could possibly happen. A subsequent investigation for The Guardian explained that the hotel’s isolated location, along with Arefin’s use of threats and intimidation, allowed him to exercise total control over the people he brought into Scotland. The hotel’s online reviews were consistently awful, but tours kept coming, because the hotel was the only option for walkers seeking to explore that part of the Highlands.

That case is a horrific outlier, of course, and the suffering of the victims unthinkable, but it also shows the danger of assuming that market forces will always deliver the hospitality industry Scotland needs. Many factors affect the success of a hotel, restaurant or visitor attraction, and it’s by working together that we’ll ensure every visitor takes home nothing but happy memories.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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