Tourism figures may be up but VisitScotland could be doing much more to grow the industry and restore the confidence of smaller operators, says Andrew Watson, deputy head of press and parliamentary affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland.
Foreign visitors are flocking to Scotland, according to figures released by VisitScotland earlier this month. A 14% increase in visitor numbers (6% higher than English visitor numbers) show that Scotland's second biggest industry is in rude health.
VisitScotland's chief executive, Phillip Riddle claimed that ‘these results are down to the hard work of VisitScotland and tourism businesses across the country'. However, we feel that VisitScotland needs to work better, and more closely, with small businesses.
Speaking to our members, it's clear that many small businesses harbour a lack of faith in VisitScotland, despite the effort that the organisation has put in to improving communications with the tourism industry.
Although the visitor figures are encouraging, we need to make sure tourism businesses of all sizes and in all parts of the country benefit from growing visitor numbers.
This is why we have just published a policy paper outlining our recommendations for the next four-year term of government.
Of particular concern is the Quality Assurance scheme which, like other regulatory systems in other sectors, is far too prescriptive. Regulations often contradict each other, which is a source of frustration for small businesses.
There is also growing concern about visitscotland.com's operating procedures, with visitors often told parts of the country are full or there are no facilities in a given area. In reality only those businesses registered with visitscotland.com have no vacancies and we can only imagine the response when tourists are told there are no vacancies in cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Given that this is our national tourism website, you would think that staff might recommend trying other accommodation providers or local websites for more information.
But the most controversial idea in our paper is for a compulsory registration scheme for all hotels and B&B's. Many accommodation providers are fed up with having to invest to meet Health and Safety requirements and stringent hygiene regulations only to see someone undercut them by hanging a B&B sign outside their front door, knowing that there is little chance they will be inspected.
Compulsory registration seems to be the only way to maintain minimum standards for visitors and provide a more level playing field for business. The success of a compulsory scheme would be dependent on it pulling together existing requirements and inspections, which would mean less overall regulation.
Greater investment is also needed to promote Scotland to domestic and international markets. The Republic of Ireland, one of Scotland's biggest competitors for tourists, has a budget twice as big as Scotland's, which is why VisitScotland's decision to close its London base was met with such disappointment by Scotland's political elite.
Since Scotland relies on domestic tourism from other parts of the UK, and on VisitBritain to redirect visitors on to Scotland, this decision could depress the rate of growth in tourism figures.
Small firms are left with the impression that VisitScotland could work much more closely with business and do more to market Scotland abroad.
We have made several recommendations to VisitScotland and hope to work with it to help the small businesses which sustain the industry, to simplify regulations, and to prevent non-inspected businesses from opening. This will help the industry to grow, while protecting ‘Scotland the brand'.
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