Another Perspective

‘Just had a fabulous stay in a completely off the tourist guide town. A great place to explore local attractions. The apartment is spotlessly clean with all the home comforts. Highly recommend’

Or how about this?

‘We had a wonderful time. The place is spacious, comfortable and equipped with everything you need. It’s in a great location with many shops and eateries close by.’

Paris, Prague, the Algarve? No, these are just two of the scores of heart warming reviews I’ve received for my Airbnb property in Bo’ness, a former mining town in West Lothian. These kinds of comments are what inspires me and holiday home owners all over Scotland to commit so much of our time and effort in providing visitors to the country with unique experiences.   

Our guests are the people that encourage us to keep running our successful small businesses as we try to show visitors the best that Scotland has to offer. Some of what makes this country such a fantastic place to visit can’t be found in the guide books. Friends in Bo’ness are amazed when I tell them that folk from as far apart as Indonesia and Brazil have stayed here and had a holiday in our town. In fact, my first ever guests were from Indonesia. They were touring the UK and stayed in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Bo’ness! Guess which one they liked most? 

Visitors to Scotland appreciate our local knowledge, they love the contact they have with the diverse group of folk who provide high quality accommodation in unique locations. In my case, I worked for years promoting Scottish culture through my jobs as director of the Saltire Society and head of the Scots Language Centre. I’m now retired from those jobs but I still get so much satisfaction helping visitors uncover the real Scotland. There is nothing corporate about what we do. We’re unique individuals providing a personal service.  

Short-term holiday lets bring visitors to hard to reach parts of the country. And that’s the key.  Each experience is unique. The local impact can be huge. My guests use the local shops and restaurants, they take the train, they visit local attractions. They bring money into the community. Unlike the big hotel chains, often owned by US based hedge funds, the money stays where it’s spent. It wasn’t Visit Scotland or the Scottish Government that brought those visitors to those out of the way bit of West Lothian. It was me and the Airbnb platform. 

The planning departments of Edinburgh and Highland Councils are both suggesting that successful locally owned businesses should be replaced by international hotel chains. Apart from the complete inability to take account of what tourists actually want, isn’t this just the most staggering incidence of self harm since former Edinburgh Labour Lord Provost, Eric Milligan, went on TV to tell folk to do their Christmas shopping in New York? It’s almost Soviet in its determination to tell tourists what to do. You must stay in our designated hotels and don’t for a minute think you can make your own decisions. You’re here to do what we tell you!  

How is replacing our local businesses with international chains going to benefit the joiners, painters, electricians and cleaners who we pay directly and who, like most of us, live in the communities where our businesses operate? We don’t ‘hollow out’ communities, we live in them and enrich them.

And remember too, that it’s not just holidaymakers who use short term accommodation. Over the last two years I’ve had, amongst others, a Saudi doctor spending a month at the local hospital, a director of a Falkirk based bus company attending board meetings, a Cuban / Scottish family from Havana where the dad was undergoing a month of treatment at the eye clinic at the Western General Hospital, temporary staff at Ineos in Grangemouth, and numerous builders working for short spells on local sites. Encouragingly for readers of Flag in the Wind, I’ve also had a number of visitors looking at relocating to Scotland from England. They want to try out different parts of the country to see where they’d most like to live. Hotels just don’t work for these folk. 

Hosts also find themselves accommodating folk who suddenly find themselves in difficult circumstances and need somewhere short term at short notice. Right now I have a lovely guest, a veterinarian, whose marriage has broken down and who needed somewhere to stay while she sorted out her future. During the pandemic many Airbnb hosts put up people who found themselves without accommodation. I had a guest who couldn’t get back to her home in Cyprus and instead ended up staying at my place for 4 months. 

We shouldn’t forget the many young people who work online and travel the world doing their jobs. Scotland benefits from having this digital nomad community amongst us. We’ve been cut off from our neighbours in the EU by Westminster’s crazy Brexit policy and the pandemic has limited travel opportunities. We shouldn’t be finding more ways to discourage folk from coming. 

Not that Airbnbs are just for visitors from outside the country. During the pandemic many of us have discovered parts of Scotland that we’ve never visited before. Tens of thousands of Scots use Airbnb every year and love the experience it offers.     

The Scottish Government wants to be seen to be doing something about the housing crisis. Holiday let owners have got caught in the crossfire and legislation which some estimate will shut down over half the present number of Scottish holiday lets has come into force. There’s no real evidence that these new measures will do anything to help with what is a long-standing problem. The Scottish government certainly hasn’t provided any.  

Cutting ourselves off from the fastest growing tourism market in the world doesn’t make sense. We’re facing economic uncertainty for the foreseeable future. Nicola Sturgeon, says that, ‘an innovative, resilient and welcoming (tourism) industry is vital, not only for Scotland’s future prosperity, but for Scotland’s place in the world.’ 

If those sentiments are to be taken seriously the Scottish government needs to recognise the vital and increasing role the self-catering sector will play in the tourism sector. Instead what we see is a government that seems determined to go ahead with closing down thousands of successful local businesses, fatally wounding the tourism sector in many parts of the country, and providing no clear evidence based benefits to the communities that they claim to serve.