WHICH industry is active in every town and village across Scotland, generates £12 billion a year and is supported by an army of staff?

It could only be one – tourism.

And as English schools break up for the summer, it is about to enter its busiest period.

From guest houses and campsites to museums and boat tours, the tourism sector accounts for around one in every 12 jobs in Scotland and around 5% of GDP, with much of the trade driven by demand from visitors from the rest of the UK.

Meanwhile, America, Germany, France, Canada and Poland are our biggest markets for overseas tourists.

READ MORE: Moon landing links to Scotland highlighted by VisitScotland map

But industry bosses are working to attract new audiences and grow its value even further, pushing the total take by £1bn by 2020.

Earlier this month Ivan McKee, Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation, visited China to launch next year’s key tourism brand, the “Year of Coasts and Waters”, where he said: “Our rich culture and history mean that Scotland has much to offer Chinese visitors and investors and I hope that many choose to visit our country in 2020 and beyond. I look forward to the upcoming year-long programme of events and activities that is being put together to celebrate this incredible aspect of Scotland.”

That emphasis on reaching out, according to Gordon Morrison of the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions (ASVA), is especially important due to the current political climate.

“There is the looming cloud of Brexit,” he told the Sunday National. “A lot of members are concerned about what that is going to mean.

“There is now a sense that we are not that welcoming a country, but it’s quite well known that Scotland was heavily Remain and there’s been some great campaigns by the likes of VisitScotland which have really helped our European friends to know that Scotland is open for business, and for visitors. Amongst our members, there’s still confidence that the year will be positive and up on last year.

“But we have to do everything we can to improve our offering.”

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ASVA members include country parks, art galleries and distilleries, which are a massive growth area for the sector thanks to six-figure investments at some sites.

But Morrison, chief executive of the body, says the rest of the public must appreciate just how important his sector is. “It sounds cliched,” he says, “But it’s everybody’s business.

“It can be frustrating when you hear people complain about the number of visitors they see. Tourism is still growing and it looks like it is this year as well. It’s fast becoming our leading industry. We should be doing everything we can to get that story out there.”

He went on: “We don’t realise how good we are. There’s a huge emphasis on quality of visitor experience, it’s not just about ‘let’s get as much money as we can’.

“I’m just back from New York and Toronto, and they have world-famous attractions, but they don’t offer the same level of welcome and service as we do. Our industry recognises the way to success is by offering quality.”

Today the Sunday National speaks to some of those who make the holiday industry work.

CASTLES: Passion for times past

The National:

AT one of Scotland’s most historic castles, time is on Liz Grant’s mind. Not only is the Dunbar native in charge of commercial business at Stirling Castle, she must also balance that activity with the sensitive maintenance and restoration work needed to maintain an ancient seat of power.

“It’s not just a nine-to-five operation,” she says. “We have evening events – the Great Hall could be transformed into a performance space for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra or a function space for a corporate event. It’s not just all about the past, it’s about what’s going on in the present.”

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Liz, who works for Historic Environment Scotland, also manages Doune Castle, which is at the epicentre of the “Outlander effect”. More than 140,000 people visited there in 2018 as its popularity, related to the ongoing time-travel novel and TV series, jumped by 14%.
But that total is far surpassed by traffic at Stirling, where a 7% spike has pushed footfall past 605,000.

Working at either site, says Liz, means having a passion for history, a passion for customer service and a rapport with visitors – even the up-to-400 schoolchildren who can visit on one day. 

Liz has spent her whole career in tourism and “loves” the sector. “It’s the kind of job where people are always happy,” she says. “It really makes your day if you provide people with good stories, good information and show an interest in them. And at Stirling, we have a lot of good stories.”

FOOD AND DRINK: Raising a glass to holidaymakers 

The National:

GORDON and Vanessa Quinn knocked back big money gin deals with three supermarket chains to focus on their B&B business, Aird Hill.

The couple started Badachro Distillery after guests at their Wester Ross home asked what local produce they could take home. The resulting gin – around 6500 bottles a year – is now sold in independent off-sales in the UK, Denmark and Germany.

But when UK grocery giants sought supplies, the couple turned them down. “We’d have had to work the place like a factory,” Gordon said. “That’s not what it’s about.

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“There’s an inherent value to living here. The tourism industry has allowed us to do that.”

The couple haven’t had a summer holiday in 12 years since leaving their corporate jobs in London for the Highlands. “We moved away from commercial life to live a lifestyle which for many people is like being on holiday,” says Gordon. “We’re getting the opportunity to help people enjoy the most valuable time of their year and show off Badachro. We grew our little business not through fate or genius, just by listening to what our guests were saying. It’s not rocket science, but it is bloody hard work.” 

ADVENTURES: What's our job? To give our visitors their best holiday memory

The National:

CAROLYN Perkins vowed never to put on a business suit again after quitting her bingo chain job to go travelling. Now other people’s travel is her business.
She moved to Argyll to work for Seafari Adventures in Easdale, near Oban, six years ago after a stint in Peru and now helps international and domestic holidaymakers explore the west coast by boat.

Some are from the US, others are from the EU or India. While some sail for Staffa or Iona, others spend a couple of hours whale watching. “The joy is just being on the boat,” she says. “Yesterday we got four whales, lots of porpoise, a huge group of dolphins. We had a family with young kids on board and they were absolutely buzzing.

“You try to explain what this job is like, but you can’t. It’s full-on from eight in the morning until half seven at night. You sit down at the end with all the crew and say, ‘We did it’.

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“Our ethos is to be the best memory from someone’s holiday. I don’t think you can do it if it’s just a job for you. You have to be prepared to put 100% in, it becomes a way of life.”

Staff numbers vary from 15 in the summer to three or four in the winter, when Carolyn, who previously worked in Oldham, leaves for Spain to help at her parents’ farm. But she has no plans to escape her west coast idyll.

“I’m so lucky,” she says. “I used to have a very boring job, now my office window overlooks Mull. My life is so much better than it was before. I’ve never been happier.”

That happiness is linked to positivity about the future, despite environmental threats. “Our office is the sea,” she says. “We need to protect it. Over the last five or six years people have become more aware. 

“They don’t want to see animals in captivity, they want to see them here.”

BESPOKE BLUEPRINTS: We aim to offer an alternative to the snapshot Scotland trip

The National:

MEET the couple taking on travel bibles like Lonely Planet – one road trip at a time.
Mike and Aurelia Peddie, above, set up their Secret Scotland travel guide company after US friends asked for tips ahead of their trip.

Since 2005, they’ve visited more than 400 B&Bs and countless cafes, pubs and attractions to create a range of detailed downloadable itineraries and bespoke holiday blueprints for the overseas market.

Son Logan, now eight, above right, has joined his Scots dad and French mum on so many adventures that he’d been to almost 30 islands before his seventh birthday.
It’s all to create an alternative to what Mike, from Monkton, South Ayrshire, calls the “snapshot Scotland” experience.

“Scotland is getting reduced to this soundbite imagery of St Andrews, golf, the fairy pools, the North Coast 500,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is give people a deeper experience.

“If you look at the back of a Lonely Planet guide book, one of the guys that writes is based in London and comes up once a year. The other is from Scotland, but also writes about South America. They’re journalists who write on a number of topics, but what we do is very focused.”

The majority of their customers are from North America and Australia, and all, Mike says, “want to have a trip that’s about them”. 

This means good experiences, good food and good accommodation, and the couple aren’t shy about highlighting poor value, service or quality where they’ve found it. “It’s just what you would tell your friend,” Mike says. “So many folk go to mainstream restaurants, which make extraordinary money by serving crap food. You can’t just tell folk about places, you have to steer them down the road to get to them.”

If he had to choose a favourite place, Mike would choose Tiree, which he says is “like a desert island experience,” with a striking sense of community and separation from everywhere else. But the family’s own holiday will have to wait. “When the weather’s good, we’re at our most hectic,” Mike says.