Lord Thurso says he feels confident that his previous leadership roles in international hospitality will help him take Scotland to the next level, in the first of a three-part interview with the new VisitScotland chairman by journalist Kenny Kemp.
The new chairman of VisitScotland feels confident that his previous leadership roles in international hospitality will help him take Scotland to the next level.
Scotland has enjoyed several years of unparalleled success and global exposure sparked by ‘The Winning Years’ campaign. Since the record-breaking year of 2014 – with the Ryder Cup, Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the Year of HomecomingScotland’s visitor numbers have remained remarkably buoyant, with the nation capitalising on massive brand awareness.
So how does Lord Thurso - also known as John Sinclair - think Scotland can sustain this momentum and how will he define his own position as chair of our major tourism marketing authority?
“On my epitaph when I leave VisitScotland, I’d love them to say that together, as a team, we achieved two things: one that the cake grew bigger and, two, the slices were dispersed more across Scotland.”
Lord Thurso asserts there is still untapped potential for growth with tourism as a major driver of investment and employment right across Scotland, directly and through the supply chain. For him, tourism is more than a holiday experience: it creates jobs and sustains communities in every corner of Scotland all year round and is at the heart of the Scottish economy.
Lord Thurso talks to a hotelier.
His equation is simple: more visitors mean more employment. For every £64,000 spent by visitors, a new job is created in tourism.
Spreading the tourism cake will help regions and districts of Scotland that have previously been by-passed by mass tourism.
“This is about helping Dumfries & Galloway, or Lyness [Scapa Flow, Orkney], Stromness, Durness or even Aberdeen, wherever, to actually fulfil their potential for visitors,” he says, sitting in VisitScotland’s high-rise HQ in Leith.
He says that tourism is the bedrock of the Scottish rural economy and without it communities would not thrive.“I want everyone to understand the importance of tourism – it goes beyond the hotel reception into supporting jobs in a diverse range of sectors, from florists to laundry services,” he adds.
He says this would not come at the expense of Edinburgh, Glasgow and even St Andrews, which have all enjoyed a very good innings.
“Edinburgh and Glasgow are lead attack brands for Scotland. If you are growing the cake, you can only do that if more people are coming to Scotland, with the vast majority flying in to either Edinburgh or Glasgow airports.These are seriously important destinations for all kinds of reasons. However, as the numbers grow, it allows visitors to spread out more to savour new places that have been off the beaten track. And we have plenty of glorious gems that are worthy of welcoming more visitors. It is not an ‘either or’. Increasing the cake and sharing it out are two entirely complementary aspirations.”
Spreading the cake means finding new opportunities to promote Scotland. For the likes of Dundee, emerging as a vibrant tourism destination, it is for those interested in design and technology, sparked by the V&A Dundee.
He asserts that if Scotland is smart and sells its brand well, then there is enough to go around for everybody. He is also confident that chief executive Malcolm Roughead and his executive team within VisitScotland are tuned-up to face the challenge of the digital world, where social media does so much to attract visitors.
As a son of Caithness, he understands the value of ensuring more visitors take the journey to the far north of Scotland. One of his first tasks after taking on the chairman’s role was to drop into VisitScotland’s Inverness office, and was delighted to discover that, contrary to what he had once heard, staff there did not tell visitors that ‘nothing much happened further north’ than Loch Ness.
Stac Pollaidh viewed from the east along the North Coast 500.
The creation of NC500 (North Coast 500), a 500-mile scenic road tour of Caithness, Easter Ross, Inverness-Shire, Sutherland and Wester Ross, fits snugly with this objective.
“Twenty years going up the west coast it was hard to get a good meal. Now you’ve got a whole series of fabulous places, such as the Kylesku Hotel, run by Tanja Lister and Sonia Virechauveix, who do fabulous meals with local seafood and are open all the year.”
Another part of the strategy has been about encouraging more people to visit in the shoulder months of early spring and late autumn.
“We’ve had events such as the O’Neill Cold Water Classic, a world surfing championships in Thurso in April. Thirty years ago nobody knew how great the waves were for surfing in the north of Scotland. We need to make more of the outdoor sporting activities that go on around the year.”
He says trout and salmon angling – among the most popular pastimes in the UK – goes on outwith the traditional summer holiday months.
Of course, there are music festivals, such as Celtic Connections, that have helped Scotland in the darker, colder months of the year. “There is now a lot of first-rate event space in Scotland. What a fantastic product we have – we really couldn’t be luckier.”