On the ROAD
When it comes to attracting tourists into the heart of Scotland’s wild places, it’s the small group tour buses that are leading the way, discovers Ron Clark
IN A lonely Highland glen, with the wind soughing through the heather and the sun glistening on the l och, the adventurous visitor might be lucky enough to encounter the odd, typically Scottish phenomenon . . .
A Landseer 12-pointer stag, for instance, or a ruminating Highland cow . . . or perhaps a soaring golden eagle.
One thing the visitor will almost certainly be able to count on seeing, however, is another local phenomenon – a small group tour bus.
Like midges, these luxurious little vehicles are now ubiquitous; unlike midges they are a positive benefit to the Scottish economy, creating an efficient conduit for tourist money from Asia and beyond to the local hospitality industry.
Several large operators and dozens of smaller niche companies in the Scottish Destination Management Association have a combined turnover in excess of £36 million and employ hundreds of full-time and seasonal people.
SDMA chairman Rober t McKinlay Kidd, who also operates bespoke tours company McKinlay Kidd, said: “Small group tour companies have been particularly innovative in creating more individual experiences for visitors.
“They are for people who don’t want to be herded. They allow tourists to interact with local people and sample smaller, l ocally- run accommodation such as B&Bs and hostels.”
Until about 20 years ago coach travel in Scotland was the preserve of large, luxury vehicles, which were confined to main roads. The old saw that “civilisation will have reached its zenith when the charabanc come to Barra Head” still had a resonance.
But now fleets of minibuses, all sumptuously appointed, sally forth from Scotland’s cities each morning on a quest for wilderness and savage beauty – or, at the very least, a distillery.
Gary Voy, of Timberbush Tours, was among the earliest to spot the market for tailored, knowledgeably guided and goodhumoured small parties wanting to reach into Scotland’s more remote recesses – the ones the big tour buses couldn’t reach.
He has just invested £1 million in five new coaches, taking his fleet to 17, and created 15 new jobs, making a headcount of 45 who transport 1000 passengers a week. Turnover has doubled in the past three years to £2.5m and he is the official partner for the Military Tattoo and the Ryder
Cup. He bought his first bus 16 years ago, when he and his wife and business partner were both working as civil servants in the Land Register. He had no licence and it took him 10 months before he could pass his test and get the vehicle on the road.
He said: “The business was named after the place on Leith shore where we used to stay. As it grew, we would sit in the pub at night with the guide books out, working out new and off-theb-eaten-track routes.
“The tours are for people who want a more personal service. We drove Dan Brown’s parents when the Da Vinci Code was being filmed at Rosslyn Chapel and we are moving into the north of England with Harry Potter tours to Alnwick Castle.”
Timber-bush also drives heads of state and transported the Pope direct from the tarmac at his last visit. It partners with major corporates such as Standard Life, Mitsubishi and RBS. The Asian market has taken off in the past four years, with “an explosion” of visitors from Korea, China and Hong Kong.
“Tourism is booming in Scotland just now,” said Voy, “with new flights and hotel openings. It’s a huge market and many people are looking for something a bit different, off the beaten track.
“Unlike coach drivers, who have to follow certain routes, our drivers have free rein and can make their own decisions. For instance, they could make a stop in Glencoe to take passengers on a waterfall walk. It’s their call.”
‘TOURISM IS BOOMING IN SCOTLAND JUST NOW WITH NEW FLIGHTS AND HOTEL OPENINGS’
One of the biggest operators is Rabbie’s Small Group Tours, founded 20 years ago by Robin Worsnop, who was inspired by his experiences of travelling in Turkey and Egypt, where much of the exploring in rural areas is done with small groups on the back roads in a mini-coach.
Rabbie’s has grown enormously from its Scottish roots and last year carried in excess of 60,000 passengers in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. It has 37 itineraries in Scotland and 53 itineraries across the UK and Ireland, and posted a turnover last year of more than £6m. It employs 90 people.
Worsnop also started in a modest way. He borrowed to buy his first coach, a second hand Leyland Daf. By year two, he had made enough to invest in a brand new top-of-the-range bespoke Mercedes minibus and two driver tour guides to take some of the strain.
He said: “I vividly remember my first bus tour, which left from Edinburgh’s Waverley Bridge in March 1993 with three Italian tourists to do a whisky tour covering Glenturret, the Sma’ Glen, the Birks of Aberfeldy and Edradour distillery.
“I was back the next day to take another nine tourists around Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, Inversnaid and Stirling Castle. All my mates in their late twenties were going out on a Saturday night, while I was doing bus tours six days a week and maintenance on t he seventh.”
Rabbie’s has since become an established part of the Scottish tourist landscape, with a regular stream of awards and a portfolio of corporate partners.
Worsnop said: “Our market probably goes in the direction of adventure travel. By getting off the beaten track and on to the back roads, we get to where only the smaller tours can go – closer to the real people and local lives.
“Time off the bus is important. We pride ourselves on getting out there among the locals for a truly authentic experience.”
Worsnop has now handed over day- to- day running of the company to a managing director and has opened the first of what he intends to be a chain of Rabbie’s cafés. Perhaps these will be the next Scottish phenomena in the Highland glens.
COUNTRY PURSUITS: Gary Voy, who created Timberbush Tours, was one of the pioneers of small group tours
in Scotland and is currently investing in