SCOTLAND experienced a surprise tourism boom this year with thousands more visitors flying into the country and spending more while they are here.
The number of overseas tourists rose by almost 30 per cent in the first three months of the year compared with 12 months earlier.
Industry leaders said the increase was mostly driven by European visitors when the “euro exchange rate has been more favourable for inbound visitors from EU”.
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However, it came with a warning of the impact Brexit could have on the tourism sector in terms of visitor numbers, currency rates and hiring staff.
Marc Crothall, chief executive of industry body Scottish Tourism Alliance, said: “Uncertainty in the rate of sterling could create problems for inbound tour operators, resulting in delays in securing contracts with hotels, carriers and ground agents.
“Changes to tariffs on European produce, in particular food and drink, which on top of an already could increase prices, reducing our competitiveness further.”
Almost 300,000 European visitors visited Scotland in first quarter of 2016, up from 206,000 in the same period in 2015.
During this time, expenditure increased from £77 million to £108m.
Although combined overseas and domestic visits dipped by seven per cent, expenditure for these markets rose by two per cent in the year to the end of March.
Tighter economic times in the US, however, may have contributed to a 16 per cent drop in visitors from North America over the same three months.
VisitScotland put the rolling year-on-year drop in visitors down to the extraordinary global events the country hosted in 2014, including the Commonwealth Games, the Year of Homecoming and the Ryder Cup.
Mr Crothall said the figures on overseas tourists were "good news and illustrate the potential Scotland has to be one of the best destinations in the world to visit".
“Our industry should be commended for the product and service it delivers," he said.
“However, Scottish tourism continues to experience many challenges and we are still not anywhere near as competitive as we could and should be.
“The fact that a significant proportion of our market is within Europe has clearly been an opportunity, however this may present longer term challenges in relation to the unknowns post EU-referendum.”
He added: “The renegotiation of European air access agreements and any possible changes in the UK’s status as a European and international air hub could lead to higher air-fares and fewer flights within Europe.
“Perhaps the biggest perceived challenge and threat to the industry is our sector’s ability to attract, employ and retain overseas staff, both seasonal and permanent.
“The issue of skills and employment is now a significant one for tourism in Scotland.”
Malcolm Roughead, VisitScotland chief executive, said: “Of course, we cannot afford to sit back, and be complacent about these great first quarter results.
“In a difficult economic and political climate, it is our role to ensure Scotland stays at the forefront of traveller’s minds with continued investment in airline routes, infrastructure, digital innovation and promotion.
“Tourism is more than a holiday experience, it creates jobs and sustains communities in every corner of Scotland all year round and is at the heart of the Scottish economy.”
Tourism Secretary Fiona Hyslop said: “Spending from domestic visitors has increased despite the industry operating under challenging conditions.
“European tourists, in particular, continue to flock to Scotland and are spending more.
“We continue to welcome their visits and the significant contribution that they make to Scotland’s economy.”
For background information see: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/homenews/146207...