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17 January 2000

The murder of our biggest industry

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

“You’ll have had your tea.” This threadbare parody of the traditional Scottish welcome looks likely to become a reality in 2000. Recently released statistics show that the Scottish tourist industry is currently unable to fill a staggering 16,000 job vacancies. This represents just under 10 per cent of the total workforce of Scotland’s largest and potentially most dynamic industry. This year landladies and hoteliers will almost certainly be hoping that you’ve had your tea because there might not be anybody to make it.

The level of unfilled vacancies is all the more startling when seen against a background of the 140,000 jobless total for Scotland in 1999. This failure to recruit cannot be unconnected to a second and equally unpalatable statistic. Despite the fillip given by the approach of the millennium, the entire Scottish sector actually declined in 1999 by 6 per cent, or £159 million. And potential visitors have not apparently been saving up to come in 2000 either: projections show an even sharper decline of 7 per cent on the way for this year.

This is nothing short of a disgraceful state of affairs. And one brought about by matters of attitude rather than a more solid set of economic forces. The difficult truth is that those who are currently unemployed do not want to become waiters, kitchen staff, guides or porters because these jobs are seen as servile, demeaning, badly paid and often worked in unsocial hours. This is a cultural characteristic that applies to the whole of Britain. By and large we are bad at looking after visitors (and, incidentally, bad at being waited on ourselves) and service can be poor and grudging in a way that it rarely is in other countries. These attitudes cannot fail to transmit themselves to visitors. So begins the turn of a vicious circle.

And who can criticise the general diffidence towards jobs in the tourist industry when pay and conditions are often very poor? These need radically to improve both in image and reality before vacancies can be filled and the circle broken. But poor pay and conditions are a further product of the cultural attitudes of employers. How many young people thinking of going into the catering business watched the antics of the chef Gordon Ramsay on television and decided to think again? It is not that Ramsay is untypical (except perhaps in his willingness to abuse and humiliate his staff on television), rather he graphically exemplifies a relatively widespread attitude. Not only are young people fearful of being treated as servants, in the worst sense, by snooty visitors, they are often treated badly by employers, too.

These attitudes need to be changed. But perhaps most alarming is the low priority given by government to the problem, and to tourism in general. This is Scotland’s biggest, repeat biggest, industry. If £159 million had fallen off the turnover of a manufacturing business, or 16,000 vacancies remained unfilled in an area with a little more glamour or status, then there would have been an almighty furore at Holyrood. Not only do potential employees and employers have an attitude problem, government does, too.

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It is extraordinary to reflect that tourism is declining in Scotland. What other country in the world is so culturally rich and full of interest for the visitor? How many millions now settled in the New World have genuine genealogical connections with Scotland? How many unique and attractive events do other destinations have that compete with and defeat us?

One example will suffice. The world’s largest and best arts festival takes place every August in Scotland. If the Edinburgh Festival was located in any other developed country, we would never hear the end of it. And yet we woefully underfund and under-market the programmes of all its various elements, which contain something for everyone, and a bit more.

In order to turn around the decline of the Scottish tourist industry no great burst of invention is needed. A clear inventory of all that we have will do for a start – and then that needs to be properly supported and funded and, finally, marketed, not only worldwide but in the rest of Britain and Scotland, too. Many of our most enthusiastic tourists live here.

What really needs to change is attitude. Tourism in Scotland is full of unrealised and unrecognised potential. We should do our homework, research the market and then sell, sell, sell Scotland to the rest of the world. The Scottish executive plans to publish a tourist strategy document in the next few weeks. Fine. If it deals with the right problems, let’s put some money and muscle behind it. And call it “What would you like for your tea?”

Alistair Moffat