By Bill Heaney
Bonnie Banks MSP Jackie Baillie was fighting the corner of business interests in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park area this week.
Dame Jackie, who is deputy leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, flagged up what she called “a crisis” and asked the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is taking to support the tourism sector.
The Minister for Small Business, Innovation, Tourism and Trade, Richard Lochhead, told MSPs: “The Scottish Government recognises how vital tourism is to our economy, and, working with VisitScotland, we actively promote Scotland as a tourist destination through targeted campaigns to domestic and international markets.
“Recent events that have helped to promote Scotland to international audiences, such as the Union Cycliste Internationale cycling world championships, have been very successful in attracting not just competitors but visitors from around the globe.
“A key component of our national strategy for economic transformation is our tourism policy, ‘Scotland Outlook 2030: Responsible tourism for a sustainable future’. Supporting the sector will help us to achieve the responsible and sustainable goals for Scotland to be a world leader in 21st century tourism.”
Dame Jackie, however was not content with that answer from the Minister.
She told him: “I recently met a number of tourism businesses that operate in the national parks, and they told me that the current situation is unsustainable and heading towards crisis.
“Hospitality businesses in England and Wales can receive up to 75 per cent non-domestic rates relief. The Scottish Government, which we know has received funding based on that policy, has chosen not to pass any relief on to the struggling Scottish sector.
“Will the minister agree to meet the national park destination management group to hear its concerns first hand? Why, in the midst of a cost of living crisis, does he not think that that relief is justified?”
Richard Lochhead said he would be delighted to meet the group. He added: “To put things into perspective, I have to say that—notwithstanding the big pressures that are faced by the businesses that she mentioned—the results from the survey of the sector, which was carried out in August 2023, said that the three biggest concerns for businesses in the sector were energy prices, inflation and interest rates, in that order.
Minister Richard Lochhead, Dame Jackie Baillie and Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart.
“She will be aware that the Government and the Parliament do not have responsibility for those issues; they are United Kingdom Government issues.
“The new deal for business and the working groups within that have been looking at some of the issues that Jackie Baillie outlined in relation to rates and so on, and the report on that will be published shortly. We are keen to help the hospitality sector in Scotland as much as we can, but we also need help from the UK Government.”
Tory Murdo Fraser said: “Right now, the tourism sector is united in raising concerns about the licensing of short-term lets regulations that are due to come in on 1 October, which will affect not only self-catering units but bed and breakfasts, guest houses, home shares and home swaps. Given those concerns and the unintended consequences of the regulations that are coming in, if the Scottish Government really is listening to business, it should surely now pause the introduction of the regulations and give time for a proper and thorough review of what is going wrong as a result of the policy.”
Richard Lochhead replied: “I listened very closely to the Minister for Housing’s statement on that subject during topical question time yesterday. The minister gave an up-to-date report on where things are and said that he is listening closely to stakeholders.
“I want to put on record the valuable role that self-catering accommodation, bed and breakfasts and similar short-term let accommodation play in the Scottish economy and the tourism sector. However, the Government—indeed, the policy had support from members across the chamber and from all parties—is trying to balance some important factors.
“We have to take into account consistency of standards across the sector and the impact on neighbourhoods and communities, which is why all parties at Westminster—indeed, in the past, all parties in this chamber—and governments around the world are looking at regulating short-term lets right now. Even San Francisco, which hosts the global headquarters of Airbnb, has had to introduce stringent regulation of short-term lets. It is quite right that we look at that.”
There were three consultations, and businesses have until 1 October to apply.
Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP) asked: “Can the minister provide an update on the steps that are being taken within the powers currently available to the Scottish Government to support tourism businesses that have reported staff shortages due to the loss of freedom of movement?”
Richard Lochhead told her: “As well as the other issues that have an impact on tourism and hospitality in Scotland, the fourth issue that is often mentioned is the impact that Brexit has had through a shortage of labour and skills—particularly in rural Scotland, the west of Scotland and the islands. That is a big issue.
This week, I met with the industry-led tourism and hospitality skills group to see what more the Scottish Government can do not only to put pressure on the UK Government to do the right thing on immigration and rural visas but to make tourism and hospitality an attractive career option for the young people of Scotland.
LibDem Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) added: “The practical implications of short-term lets licensing applications are posing a threat to the emergence and growth of tourism in Scotland. A combination of a shortage of qualified trades and long travel times to islands is making it very difficult for some accommodation providers to complete necessary work and get certification for their applications, which is putting businesses at risk.
“I raised that with the Minister for Housing and the council, who are both aware of the issues but are unable to identify a solution. How is the Scottish Government working with local authorities to ensure that local needs are addressed for the licensing requirements?”
Richard Lochhead replied: “One issue that is often raised with me by tourism businesses on the islands and across Scotland is that they sometimes cannot recruit staff because there is nowhere for them to live, and there is nowhere for them to live because of second homes and houses and properties bought for tourism purposes—short-term lets—and for other purposes.
“That is one of the reasons why we are looking at those issues, and I say to Beatrice Wishart that the key worker housing policy that we are developing at the moment and the forthcoming rural plan will say a lot more about that. The First Minister has already announced substantial resources for a key worker housing plan. I understand that that is a big issue in Shetland—I remember that from my own visit there. We are very serious about addressing those issues.”
Top picture caption: National Park team look at new plans for Loch Lomond.