By RYAN TAYLOR
Details of how Shetland’s fledgling marketing organisation for tourism will operate alongside VisitScotland have begun to emerge, amid calls for the isles to further distance themselves from the national tourism authority.
Members of the Shetland Tourism Association heard Promoting Shetland, created following a decision by the council to take control of marketing the isles as a visitor attraction, will co-operate with VisitScotland.
The new organisation, which will initially take its place at the museum thanks to a deal with Shetland Amenity Trust, will be up and running in the summer.
VisitShetland, meanwhile, will continue to offer front-line services from its Market Cross offices.
The decision to set up Promoting Shetland followed unpopular moves by VisitScotland to centralise services, which led to ultimate control of Shetland’s tourism resting with mainland-based managers. The strong emphasis this year on the Homecoming Scotland event, which does not involve Shetland which has its own haemfarin next year, has also proved unpalatable locally.
Linda Coutts, of the council’s economic development unit, told the STA members at their annual general meeting in Islesburgh on Saturday that Shetland would be able to “buy into” VisitScotland’s marketing campaigns when it suits, but also maintain a degree of autonomy.
“We want the best we can get for marketing Shetland within the Scottish network. We want the best of both worlds,” she said. She added that Promoting Shetland would avoid taking a “front-row seat” in tourism and that front-line services would continue to be offered by VisitScotland.
“We will provide a local mechanism to ensure resources are there,” she said. She added that a presence in the museum would encourage staff to share the responsibility for ensuring visitors enjoy the experience. However, owner of Seabirds and Seals Jonathan Wills said Promoting Shetland should aspire to take the place of VisitScotland, which he said had been a “catastrophe” for Shetland.
“What we’ve got is an organisation – a very small organisation – to sell Shetland. The main thing is the museum, but it’s not just the museum – it’s marketing.”
He said Shetland’s tourism sector had been “undermined and destroyed” by the “idiocy of five or six managers who aren’t based in Shetland”.
“Hopefully VisitScotland will be wound up. We’ve got to work out what to do about tourism information centres. “My criticism is not towards [local VisitScotland manager] Andy Steven and his team, who have done a wonderful job under very difficult circumstances. My criticism is of people from outside Shetland who know nothing about it.”
He said tourism services currently offered by VisitScotland at the Market Cross should be put to tender. “Why can’t we just tell them to shove off? Why can’t we just tell them to go away and tell them they have failed. We’ll be able to get things under control and do things like put the right ads in the right magazines or brochures, because if it is controlled by VisitScotland it will be a catastrophe.”
He pointed to a recent meeting with VisitScotland representatives, who had told him brochures on Shetland had been put on special display in Fort William. Asked why Fort William had been chosen as a suitable location for Shetland brochures, Dr Wills was told it was because the town was seen as a gateway to the Highlands and Islands.
“We haven’t got local control of visitor services. People want a service that is open at 8am for business. All this was running and now it has been destroyed.”
Ms Coutts said taking over front-line services from VisitScotland could effectively cost £500,000, but maintained the attitude towards making tourism a greater success in Shetland was greater than ever before.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a will as great as there is now, but we’ve got to be pragmatic. If we had said, ‘as of tomorrow we’re going to take over the tourist office’, we would have failed massively.
“There’s government money in for the Market Cross, and if we couldn’t take over the 10 staff or so then that’s another half million.
“We should take a little time and enhance the role of staff at the museum – for no extra cost – and if we look at things like ferry bookings where people can gain information when they are booking the boat then we can do it cost effectively “We have to give VisitScotland the benefit of the doubt. What we have to do at the moment is look at what we’re doing well, and lets add to it.” That gained support from the council’s vice convener, Josie Simpson, who recently went to Edinburgh to put forward the council’s plans to tourism minister Jim Mather.
“I don’t think we should cut ourselves off here. VisitScotland is there, and we have to use them. We can use them for whatever we need, but we’ve got a clear steer from the minister [Jim Mather] that this is a road they are prepared to go down.
“I don’t think we’re ready to just sever our links with Visit Scotland.”