Visitscotland to shut 60% of tourist information offices
Agency blames digital revolution as it announces the closure of 39 centres
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.