Visitscot­land to shut 60% of tourist in­for­ma­tion of­fices

Agency blames dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion as it an­nounces the clo­sure of 39 cen­tres

The Scotsman - - Front Page - By BRIAN FER­GU­SON Arts Cor­re­spon­dent

More than half of Scot­land’s tourist in­for­ma­tion cen­tres are to be axed – de­spite soar­ing num­bers of vis­i­tors from over­seas coun­tries.

Visitscot­land has blamed shift­ing de­mands from vis­i­tors for the de­ci­sion to shut down 39 of its 65 out­lets across the coun­try over the next two years.

Visi­tor at­trac­tions, lo­cal busi­nesses, tourism groups and even car hire firms will be asked to take on the work of the in­for­ma­tion cen­tres that are clos­ing.

Those that sur­vive its “in­for­ma­tion rev­o­lu­tion” will also be turned into new re­gional hubs and will be ex­pected to pro­mote much wider ar­eas than be­fore.

Visitscot­land has cited a 58 per cent drop in foot­fall at its cen­tres over the past ten years as a grow­ing num­ber of vis­i­tors have turned to the in­ter­net.

Visitscot­land said 71 work­ers are af­fected by the an­nounce­ment, but point out that staff are be­ing of­fered the chance to ei­ther re­lo­cate or re-train.

The cen­tres in both Ed­in­burgh and Glas­gow air­ports are among those af­fected, along with those at des­ti­na­tions such as Drum­nadro­chit, Aber­feldy, Loch Ness, Dun­fermline, La­nark, Cal­lan­der, In­ver­ary and Dunkeld.

The tourism agency said the 26 sites which have sur­vived the cull are all in lo­ca­tions of “greater visi­tor de­mand”.

Visitscot­land’s an­nounce­ment came on the same day it emerged that the num­ber of over­seas vis­i­tors has risen by 10 per cent. Spend­ing by for­eign tourists rose by nearly 20 per cent in the 12 months up to the end of June.

The agency said it was now spend­ing £10 mil­lion each year on “dig­i­tal ac­tiv­ity”, in­clud­ing tar­get­ing po­ten­tial vis­i­tors with more “per­son­alised in­for­ma­tion”.

Lord John Thurso, Visitscot­land’s chair­man, said: “The way vis­i­tors ac­cess in­for­ma­tion has changed sig­nif­i­cantly over the past decade. It’s time to switch our fo­cus and

in­vest­ment into new and di­verse ini­tia­tives to en­sure we’re reach­ing as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble with the in­for­ma­tion they want, in the way they want it, when they want it.

“With three in four adults own­ing a smart­phone, a key fo­cus is en­sur­ing our dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­vide suc­cinct in­spi­ra­tional and in­for­ma­tional ad­vice to vis­i­tors at ev­ery stage of their jour­ney.”

A spoke­woman for Visitscot­land said “It’s our clear goal to min­imise job losses in the changes we are mak­ing.

“As well as of­fer­ing vol­un­tary re­dun­dancy, we will of­fer the chance to learn new skills or move to an­other of­fice where fea­si­ble. We can con­firm that some staff have taken vol­un­tary re­dun­dancy al­ready and oth­ers have trans­ferred to nearby cen­tres.”

Marc Crothall, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Scot­tish Tourism Al­liance, the in­de­pen­dent in­dus­try body, said: “Dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion and the wide­spread use of mo­bile de­vices has trans­formed the way vis­i­tors source in­for­ma­tion and make book­ings, both pre and on ar­rival.

“The world is chang­ing and the tourism in­dus­try in Scot­land has to re­spond to en­sure we con­tinue to pro­vide the high qual­ity and au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ences that our vis­i­tors ex­pect at all points of their jour­neys.”

Rachael Hamilton, tourism spokes­woman for the Scot­tish Con­ser­va­tives, said: “Cut­ting the num­ber of hubs comes at a risk, as there’s noth­ing bet­ter than gain­ing lo­cal knowl­edge from a lo­cal per­son. Tourists will need to be as­sured of an ef­fi­cient roll-out and al­ter­na­tive sign­post­ing to en­sure vis­i­tors know where Scot­land’s hid­den gems and at­trac­tions are.

“Depend­ing on dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy for visi­tor in­for­ma­tion is not re­li­able, par­tic­u­larly in ru­ral hot spots. I hope Visitscot­land has care­fully con­sid­ered the im­pact to tourists and lo­cal busi­nesses.”

Scot­tish Labour’s tourism spokesman Lewis Macdon­ald said: “This is a very sub­stan­tial cut in the net­work of visi­tor in­for­ma­tion cen­tres, and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and tourism busi­nesses will be look­ing for ro­bust as­sur­ances from Visit Scot­land and the Scot­tish Govern­ment.

“In­vest­ing in dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion is clearly es­sen­tial, but vis­i­tors also ex­pect and ap­pre­ci­ate the lo­cal knowl­edge of lo­cal staff in lo­cal cen­tres. Th­ese plans mean most places in Scot­land will rely on in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by busi­nesses on be­half of Visitscot­land, rather than by staff in its cen­tres.

“Other busi­nesses will want to watch this closely, to en­sure it works in an even-handed way. Vis­i­tors will need re­as­sur­ance they can still ac­cess ad­vice and in­for­ma­tion about their next des­ti­na­tion as well as their cur­rent one.”

The an­nounce­ment from Visitscot­land’s has come af­ter a bumper sea­son for the in­dus­try. Although of­fi­cial fig­ures are not yet avail­able for July and Au­gust, there was a 21 per cent in­crease in the num­ber of over­seas vis­i­tors in the sec­ond quar­ter of this year.

The lat­est fig­ures also show that the num­ber of vis­i­tors from North Amer­ica to Scot­land rose 38 per cent in the 12 months to the end of June. Malcolm Roug­head, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Visitscot­land, said: “It is mag­nif­i­cent to see such spec­tac­u­lar growth from in­ter­na­tional mar­kets in what has been a busy year for tourism in Scot­land.

“Across the board, from ac­com­mo­da­tion provider to Cal­mac Fer­ries to Ed­in­burgh and Glas­gow air­ports, we have heard from many who have had a record-break­ing year.

“Such ma­jor growth from our in­ter­na­tional mar­kets can be at­trib­uted to in­creased, tar­geted mar­ket­ing ac­tiv­ity in key North Amer­i­can and Euro­pean coun­tries, favourable ex­change rates, in­creased ca­pac­ity on flights and the ‘Out­lander ef­fect,’ which has taken the coun­try by storm since the re­lease of the pop­u­lar TV se­ries.

“Of course with great num­bers comes great re­spon­si­bil­ity, and it is im­per­a­tive the coun­try’s tourism in­dus­try re­mains sus­tain­able. This in­cludes look­ing at how we can share the tourism wind­fall with lesser known parts of Scot­land and out­side of peak sea­son, along­side en­sur­ing that in­fra­struc­ture meets cur­rent and fu­ture de­mand.”

Scot­tish tourism sec­re­tary Fiona Hys­lop said: “The con­tin­ued rise in over­seas tourists is en­cour­ag­ing. They are spend­ing more too, par­tic­u­larly those com­ing from North Amer­ica. It is great news for our econ­omy.

“Scot­land of­fers an mem­o­rable visi­tor ex­pe­ri­ence for peo­ple that choose our coun­try as their hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion.”

COM­MENT “Cut­ting the num­ber of hubs comes at a risk, as there’s noth­ing bet­ter than gain­ing lo­cal knowl­edge from a lo­cal per­son” RACHAEL HAMILTON

As one-stop shops for maps, leaflets, brochures, and per­sonal rec­om­men­da­tions, the hum­ble tourist in­for­ma­tion of­fice has long been a prized re­source for vis­i­tors ea­ger to ex­plore Scot­land’s trea­sures.

From the Bor­ders to John O’groats, the cen­tres have helped gen­er­a­tions of tourists plan their holidays, while elic­it­ing the odd grum­ble from do­mes­tic vis­i­tors about open­ing hours and the tat on of­fer in the sou­venirs sec­tion.

But in a sign of the times, Scot­land’s na­tional tourism agency Visitscot­land has an­nounced that al­most two-thirds of its of­fices are to close. It says foot­fall to tra­di­tional in­for­ma­tion cen­tres has nose­dived by 58 per cent over the past decade, and that two in three vis­i­tors now ac­cess in­for­ma­tion on­line.

In terms of jus­ti­fy­ing the ex­pense of the of­fices, it is easy to sym­pa­thise with Visitscot­land; the ubiq­uity of smart­phones, on­line in­ter­ac­tive maps, and travel sites such as Tri­pad­vi­sor and Ex­pe­dia mean the tourism cen­tres are no longer the vi­tal ser­vice they once were.

As a pub­lic body, Visitscot­land is un­der pres­sure to demon­strate value for money, and if it be­lieves its ex­ist­ing com­ple­ment of of­fices is no longer re­quired, one hopes it has car­ried out a care­ful anal­y­sis which led to such a con­clu­sion.

The agency points out that it is in­vest­ing £10 mil­lion a year in dig­i­tal ac­tiv­ity, and while that is wel­come, it should recog­nise that dig­i­tal is not the an­swer to ev­ery­thing.

A great many will be dis­ap­pointed by the clo­sures, which have par­al­lels with the clo­sures of bank branches up and down the coun­try. Both serve es­sen­tial func­tions, and while tech­nol­ogy may have re­placed many of them, that should not ren­der them re­dun­dant, es­pe­cially when 37 per cent of UK hol­i­day­mak­ers vis­it­ing Scot­land last year were aged over 55.

Even in a dig­i­tal age where at­trac­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences are rated, listed, and re­viewed, many pre­fer a friendly face and ad­vice from some­one who has lo­cal knowl­edge. And we all know that a mo­bile phone sig­nal isn’t al­ways avail­able when we need it.

The new wave of travel sites also tend to fo­cus on “big ticket” draws, mean­ing smaller busi­nesses re­ceive only a cur­sory men­tion. Who among us does not know of a nearby bak­ery, cafe, or gift shop we re­gard as a cher­ished se­cret? Let us hope they can be found a place in the brave new fu­ture.

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