Wet weather and sticky lino to blame for tourist-free Scotland

YESTERDAY IN the Highland village of Laggan Bridge, not far from Loch Ness and Ben Nevis, Linda Whitty counted the cost of the crisis in Scottish tourism.

High season takings in her coffee shop, which serves excellent home-made cakes, have halved in the last two years from pounds 400- to pounds 200-a-week. The fine, wood-fired pottery on display from her studio is selling slowly and a hostel that she opened this year to make ends meet is virtually empty.

The story is repeated across Scotland. Tourism, the country's most important industry, which employs 180,000 people, or 8 per cent of the workforce, faces an even worse year than last year's disaster, when trade dropped 20 per cent.

In 1998 the World Cup and the appalling weather were blamed for a "blip" in the industry's fortunes. But with problems continuing, the fear is of a long-term decline. As the Braveheart effect, which made Scotland seem so exotic, recedes, those working in the tourist industry worry it is blighted by poor weather, the strong pound, high petrol prices and stiff competition from European resorts.

"There simply are not the people around," said Mrs Whitty, who opened the Caoldair Pottery 15 years ago. "This season has been dire."

The National Trust for Scotland said: "Our visitor numbers are down on last year, which was itself a poor year."

The crisis has prompted Henry McLeish, the Scottish Executive Minister responsible for tourism, to order an urgent strategy review. The Scottish Tourist Board has convened 11 focus groups to discover why Scots are turning their backs on their own country in the holiday season. An STB spokeswoman said. "We found that Scots are wondering whether it is worth risking the weather being poor for a fortnight, when they can go to cheap flight destinations like Spain and Greece."

Peter Irvine, who has been researching a revised edition of Scotland The Best!, the bible of Scottish tourism, said: "The highly competitive nature of international travel means people are trying Bangkok and then thinking, if they can handle that, why not go up the Ganges. Scotland's problem is that it is not very exotic. It is just quietly beautiful."

The scenery may be breathtaking but the accommodation on offer north of the border can leave a lot to be desired, something that is not helping the country's tourism prospects.

A group of MPs complained yesterday of Fawlty Towers standards in some of Scotland's hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. They detailed a string of "bad experiences" including sticky linoleum and overpricing. In future, they said, tourist accommodation should be licensed.

Eleven members of the Commons Scottish Affairs Select Committee have been sampling the mid and lower end of the Scottish tourism market on behalf of the nation.

Their complaints included:

t A hotel where there was "sticky" linoleum on the bathroom floor.

t A hotel which would not serve residents in the bar even though locals were clearly being served after closing time.

t A hotel restaurant which could not cope with more than one small party of diners at once and where bottles of wine were uncorked in the kitchen and brought to the table with the corks half-way in.

t A bed and breakfast hotelwhich charged 20 per cent more than the original quote.

"We discovered," concluded the MPs, "that, certainly in respect of the hospitality industry, while Scotland's best ranks with the best the world what it has to offer the lower and middle end of the market has a considerable way to go.

"We recommend a system of compulsory registration which requires all accommodation providers to meet basic safety, hygiene and public insurance liability standards." An STBspokeswoman said the report was "a timely contribution to the debate on Scotland's most important industry".