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Scottish Parliament Speech: Tourism (September 2008)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I was glad that the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee took up this important topic as I have been something of a tourism entrepreneur myself at Tübingen and Freudenstadt in the black forest, where I have run an international conference at a local hotel for the past 17 years - at a cost, I must say, of roughly half that of running a similar conference in Scotland.

In retrospect, I am less happy about our timing. In spring, we were preoccupied with cheap flights and promises of plush hotels and golf courses; from where we stand in September 2008, all that activity reminds me of the Queen Mary in 1931, sitting on the stocks in Clydebank until things got better. We must remember that the slump in 1929 happened in a period before mass motoring, holidays with pay, holiday camps and youth hostels.

As a result, I have some scepticism about the 50 per cent target, which has been induced by something that I have been predicting for long enough and which has finally happened.

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I will come back to that point in a moment. The UK - and, indeed, world - economy has been hit by earthquake-like changes. The party is over. The situation must inevitably impact on our society in its leisure as well as at its work. However, we can foresee fewer ambitious trips to overseas tourist destinations, fewer low-cost airlines, fewer big cars and a shift towards developing our own resources for people in these islands. In that respect, there is some room for manoeuvre.

We have an embryo alternative tourist market and, although I am not saying that it will be all too easy to activate it, I certainly think that doing so will be manageable. The strength of Scottish tourism, particularly for many tourists in the British islands and in Europe, lies in its small scale: its villages, its small towns, its islands and the outdoors. We need look only at the numerous guides that can be found in French or German bookshops. For example, in a shop in Tübingen, I found 17 guides to Scotland and only 14 guides to England. That is remarkable, given its proportion in population. The Irish have also done superbly well with the Germans through publications such as irland journal and by building up fan clubs for their country in German organisations, churches, schools and so on.

However, what are those tourists going to see? That is where I have my worries. Last week, I took the 60 bus from Melrose to Berwick. As we passed through Earlston, I saw that the post office had been closed and that one pub in three was up for sale; in Gordon, the only hotel was closed; in Greenlaw, one of the two hotels was closed and the magnificent town hall was derelict - although I hope that it is about to be restored - and in Chirnside, a hotel was up for sale. At the Scottish Tourism Forum open meeting at Perth racecourse, people raised issues such as the smoking ban, increased licence fees and the growth of supermarkets. The situation cannot have been helped by the fact that the weather this summer was perhaps the worst for 40 years.

However, with the homecoming celebrations and the 250th anniversary of Burns in mind for 2009, I visited Ayrshire. Initially, I did not find the trip any more reassuring than my trip through the Borders. I counted eight empty shops as I crossed the New Brig into Ayr, which shows the mark of the supermarket. The Tam O' Shanter Inn closed for meals at 7 o'clock. There was vandalism and graffiti. However, as I travelled into the back country on the remarkably good bus services, I found a tremendous stand-by-your-bard spirit embedded in the community, which made one feel that these people should be given their head and have their ideas backed by Burns clubs, the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Scotland. Why, for example, can we not appoint a homecoming commissioner who can be the motivating force for the year and preach the message? We could isolate or even co-opt the neds and nuisances and get them to smarten up the place. If we used the buzz to generate interest, we could slip into the mix some preliminary education in tourism and a constructive statistical analysis of what happens.

Our criterion should be that of the Open University, founded 40 years ago: what will people be able to do at the end of homecoming and Burns 250 that they were not able to do before? By "people", I am talking about not only experts in tourism, but people in the community. This tremendous opportunity for popular education is somewhat in the style of that suggested by our great social innovator Patrick Geddes 100 years ago.

We need to get local and tabloid editors to elevate their eyes from soap, sex and crime, and partner local papers and communities in sponsoring fests. Let our first big fest be on the day that the ferry steams again from Zeebrugge, next to where Scotland had its medieval staple of trade, to Rosyth to connect us with the continent. We ought to celebrate and learn from the process of celebration.

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