Our Tourism Industry Has Plenty To Celebrate But It Still Faces A Variety Of Challenges

Published in the Inverness Courier. November 6th 2018.

Stewart Nicol, chief executive, Inverness Chamber of Commerce

The winners of the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards have been announced. And there is plenty for the industry to celebrate with another very busy year continuing with healthy late-season business.

With the Highlands and Islands being named by Lonely Planet last month one of the top regions in the world for travellers in 2019, the momentum looks like it will continue into next year also.

Tourism is a huge sector of our economy, employing around 217,000 across the country and more than 29,000 in the Highlands and Islands. It sustains many communities in the north of Scotland and the awards remind us of the high standards of service offered to visitors in such a competitive market.

Inverness Chamber of Commerce has welcomed recent Scottish Government investment to help tourism, including £15 million through the Inverness and Highland City-Region Deal to turn Inverness Castle into a key attraction, including £1.5 million towards the purchase of Bridge Street. The castle is already a popular attraction, with a new viewpoint that opened last year attracting around 50,000 visitors, and the upgraded landmark, alongside the newly refurbished Town House, will truly be an outstanding addition to the city for our visitors.

Other developments in the pipeline will also have a significant impact on tourism and the reputation of the Highland capital. Amongst these are the Inverness Townscape Heritage Project, a make-over for the Victorian Market and the £6 million plan to revamp Inverness railway station.

In addition, we have new hotels planned in the city centre, at the riverside, at the Inverness Campus and at the airport which will help increase capacity and provide more choice for visitors.

But, alongside the good news, we have to face up to some challenges in the tourism sector. Addressing industry representatives at the tourism awards ceremony last week, Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, quite rightly raised the ongoing uncertainty of Brexit.

As the minister pointed out, leaving the EU poses a great risk to tourism, with around 10 per cent of the sector’s workforce made up of EU migrants. It is vital we get clarity soon on how Britain’s departure will affect them and the many operators who depend on their skills.

A tourism tax is another looming issue which we need to address. The Scottish Government will host a national discussion on this controversial topic which will hear both sides of the argument.

Inverness Chamber of Commerce has been consistent in its opposition to such a tax when the UK has the second highest VAT rate in Europe at 20 per cent. We believe the imposition of an additional tax could influence visitors in their choice of destination due to cost, discourage trips and, therefore, counter investment in other parts of the industry.

I hope that by the time of the next tourism awards these two threats to the industry’s future will have been removed.