Is Covid-19 changing Scottish tourism more than any other event in history?

Scottish Government confirm important foreign travel quarantine update - here's what you need to know
Cheap mass air travel flies into the sunset?

In August, the chief executive of Glasgow Airport said:

 ‘We are seeing more job losses than we saw in the demise of the coal industry in the 1980s.’

Those words resonated strongly with me. All four of my great grandfathers and one of my grandfathers were coalminers.

The current circumstances do seem dire. From the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in May 2020[1]:

  • In 1980 global international arrivals were 277 million but by 2019 they had reached 1.5 billion, nearly four times greater.
  • The SARS outbreak in 2003 reduced the level of arrivals by only 0.4% and the financial crash in 2009, by only 4%.
  • By the end of May, Coronavirus had cut international tourism by more than a half – 56%! [2]

Looking at the headlines, it seems that Covid-19 is changing tourism more than any other event in history, since the world wars of the 20th Century and may have effects that last for decades or longer.

Pinning our hopes on developing vaccines which will enable a safe return to mass international tourism looks dangerously optimistic. The World Health Organisation cautions against such hopes[3] and even if an effective vaccine is developed there are real concerns about the uptake level necessary to prevent spread within communities, even in the UK[4].

International travel, even travel within regions in the same country, has been identified as a major challenge for the control of infection outbreaks.

A message for the future sustainability and health of the tourism sector globally, across the UK and in Scotland is beginning to emerge.


Over the last few months, in Scotland alone, we have seen the people in the area around Dumfries asked not to cross the border with England for non-essential purposes, to enable an outbreak originating in a Carlisle hospital, to be shut down.

Soon after, the people of Aberdeen were asked not to travel to other parts of Scotland or beyond, until an outbreak caused by a pub crawl, which grew at great speed to involve hundreds, could be contained.

In the last few days multiple outbreaks in the area in and around Glasgow have led to a ban on visits between households, affecting around 800 000 people. While the source of the outbreaks is not yet established, they may have been triggered by young people returning from Greece and failing to quarantine.

Evidence for this can be seen in both the introduction of quarantine measures for travellers from Greece on 1st September and, in my own area, Ayrshire, of reports of contact tracing activity triggered in pubs, a supermarket and in a garden centre, by the case of a single person returning from the island of Zante, failing to quarantine, returning to work and attending a number of house parties and pubs in the town.

The Glasgow outbreak and its smaller Ayrshire neighbour will, we expect, be shut down quickly by Scotland’s impressive contact tracing teams, based in local authorities which, nationally, have been able to contact more than 99% of all suspected contacts in outbreaks and 98% of those arriving into the country.

While many may have learned lessons from these events, it seems likely that further outbreaks will have to be dealt with in the weeks and months to come.

Indeed, the coming winter months and the associated flu and norovirus infections which appear in their train, warn us that new challenges will appear.

Without wishing to cause undue panic here today, these familiar challenges will not be the greatest we face in the years to come. Scientists at the University of Liverpool warned us in June that humans have created: ‘a perfect storm for diseases from wildlife to spill over into humans and spread quickly around the world.’

Prof Matthew Baylis from the University of Liverpool told BBC News: ‘In the last 20 years, we’ve had six significant threats – SARS, MERS, Ebola, avian influenza and swine flu. We dodged five bullets but the sixth [coronavirus] got us.’

According to Prof Kate Jones from University College London, evidence: ‘broadly suggests that human-transformed ecosystems with lower biodiversity, such as agricultural or plantation landscapes, are often associated with increased human risk of many infections.’

If true, these predictions would seem to spell the end of the kind of mass international tourism we have become used to, and lessons, based on sustainability and safety, will have to be learned.

Before coming back to these issues, a brief account of tourism in my own area.

Tourism in South and East Ayrshire:

Based on Visit Scotland research[5] for 2018, published in December 2019:

Only just over 11% of 750 000 visits to Ayrshire & Arran are by non-UK, international, tourists though nearly one third (31%) of the spend of nearly £600 million, is by them.

However, though internal UK tourism visits and spend had increased by 5% from the previous year, for non-UK, international tourists, visits had increased by 15% and spend by 31%.

While these figures illustrate the strength of internal UK tourism for this area, any decrease in the number of non-UK, international tourists, resulting from the pandemic will be disproportionally costly and difficult to replace with greater internal, UK-based tourism.

Within the region, by far the greater spend by tourists is in South Ayrshire, with £137 million per year, though this seems, based on visitor numbers of around one-third of a million, heavily concentrated in only two attractions, Culzean Caste and Country Park and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. Given their known international appeal, these are vulnerable to the effects of reduced international arrivals.

The area’s most popular attraction, Dean Castle Country Park in East Ayrshire with 1.4 million visitors does not charge.

So, what can we do? What should we do?

In the light of my earlier remarks based on the evidence emerging, governmental attempts offering the unavoidably massive investment that would be required, to restore international travel fully to its former glories, may not be wise.

A more sustainable approach based on growth in internal tourism makes both economic and environmental sense and only one form of transport, other than local walking and cycling, seems worthy of structural investment – the railways. Only the railways have the capacity to increase payload and at the same time enable the social distancing which is becoming our new normal. Only the railways have the potential, based on their inherent energy efficiency, to expand without major damage to the environment. The car is not the answer though individuals may be drawn to the safety it seems to offer and though cynical politicians of the right will exploit those desires, Sadly, neither is the bus with its narrow aisles and restricted entry space.

Returning briefly to South Ayrshire’s particular vulnerability to reductions in international travel, the creation of a rail link to Culzean Country Park, from the nearby Maybole station or, better, linking via the Burns Centre in Ayr and then through dramatic coastal scenery,  would allow tourists from all over the UK, based in Central Scotland, easy access to attractions of great appeal. Though expensive, a new rail line would offer a more sustainable, more environment-friendly, less financially risky solution than huge subsidies to a mass air travel industry that may have seen its day.






12 thoughts on “Is Covid-19 changing Scottish tourism more than any other event in history?”

  1. Most people understand that being cooped up in a tube for many hours at a time with air being recirculated around the cabin is essentially a virus incubator.
    The airlines might try to convince people that by taking their temperature before embarkation guarantees safe travel but certainly not me and I am pretty sure many others.
    Unless an effective vaccine can be found,air travel is dead and along with it the cheap tourism we have seen for the last number of decades.
    Back to sitting on the beach at Bettyhill with the fur coats and gloves?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Interesting, thank you. Certainly this is one area of the economy that will need serious creative investment. Nevermind the EngGov talking about widening the M8, that’s ridiculous. We definitely need a far more extensive, functioning affordable rail network for Scotland. The SNP have started that process with the borders railway and a new rail link within Fife. Perhaps it’s time to reverse Beecham’s (is that the right name?) destruction of the rail system/network and within Scotland, where there are a lot of empty rail tracks still, running through the countryside, that is surely the future for sustainable transport.

    For anyone interested I have 2 copies (one going spare) of Christopher Harvie’s ‘Deep fried Hillman Imp, Scotland’s transport’, by Argyll publishing, I think in the year 2000. It gives a historic look at Scotland’s transport infrastructure, or rather lack of it, under the rule of the English. It was only ever invested in to move sheep around the highlands, and to give the rich Eng land theives a way yo get themselves around the Highlands, and then to export the masses of products of industry, via rail, ports and roads, all taken out of Scotland, I guess raw products imported in order to produce the goods, all revenues taken away to make a few people in England, very very rich indeed. It’s amazing that the roads to and from Aberdeen were never built or upgraded, but then the oil was siphoned away by tankers so no need for roads or rail really. Anyone from the oil magnates’ US companies really wanting access could just helicopter in and they did!

    On the subject of tourism, it’s nice to visit abroad, but I could never ever understand why you would go to the costa del somewhere when you have the most stunning country to explore, ie, Scotland, on your doorstep! Weird.

    Life has changed, people need to accept that, they need to adjust, and make that adjustment in the most environmentally sustainable way. It is terrible for people losing heir jobs of course, but the £100bn the EngGov intend handing to their rich pals, for supposed CV19 tests, could be invested in new eco friendly industries. Pigs will fly before that tho, sadly.

    Scotland needs to look at this area of the economy pronto, I am sure they are worried about the huge negative impact and how, against huge odds of Brexit etc, they can mitigate even more EngUK Government mismanagement and incompetency.

    There is another way, take it by the horns Scotland, now.

    Sorry long comment!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Deep Fried Hillman Imp used to be available for free as a pdf.

      Pat Kane’s into is powerful. I remember that day. I was in the southbound tunnel when the crash happened. A minute or so earlier and I could have been involved.


    2. Beechams was for headaches, you’re thinking of Beeching who caused many of them.

      Beeching gets a lot of flak for cuts to the railway network but they were essentially down to the typical London Tory thinking we are still suffering from, “efficiency” at any cost.
      Cutting the Paddy Line was a perfect example of Tory myopia, it decimated the entire south-west of Scotland, and many once industrious and busy towns never recovered.
      Aside reopening of the Waverley and Fife lines, much is now beyond recovery.
      Mass transit may be recognised as essential for Scotland, but while the London Tories obsess over their ludicrous HS2 trainset, zero support there, so independence has even more going for it….

      Liked by 1 person

  3. If it takes longer than a few years to develope and distribute an effective vaccine, Climate Warming counter measures may well have kicked in further, meaning international air travel fuelled tourism might never rear it’s ugly but enjoyable head ever again!


  4. Re railway to Aberdeen (Arty Hetty at 9.33 17/9), years ago an acquaintance in England, newly returned from a rail trip to Aberdeen, sneered at the line (is it single track at some points?). I immediately responded that it was a disgrace that historically the UK government had failed to invest in that line when it had got hundreds of billions of Pounds £ tax from the oil industry via Aberdeen. There was no response! (Incidentally, over many years I’ve had to correct people in England who believe that Scotland gets all the tax from the oil industry, or who even think that scotland keeps all the oil tax, and in addition gets money from English taxpayers through the Barnett formula.)

    Dear Prof, it’ s a long time since I sent you a “thank you” for all your brilliant work on this site. So, many thanks again, and keep well.


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