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Business / Lerwick tourist office to close as VisitScotland goes fully digital

Tourism association chair calls on sector to unite and speak with one voice

Lerwick tourist office. Photo: Jim Mullay

THE TOURIST office at Lerwick’s Market Cross is set to close sometime over the next two years as part of a major overhaul in the way VisitScotland promotes tourism in Scotland.

The national tourism agency announced on Wednesday that it will close its entire network of 25 information centres between September of this year and March 2026.

It follows significant changes to the way people plan their holidays with most using online resources and travel specialists to research and book all aspects of their trips, VisitScotland said.

The move has been described as “devastating news” for the isles by Amanda Hawick, the newly elected chair of the Shetland Tourism Association (STA).

All information centres – known as iCentres – will operate as usual until the end of September as part of phased two-year closure programme, the agency said.

No date for the closure of the local tourist office has yet been set.

A spokesperson for VisitScotland said: “There will be no compulsory redundancies. Staff have been offered a range of options including reskilling, redeployment and voluntary redundancies.

“We have proposed a two-year phased closure programme. This takes into consideration issues such as staffing and leasing. At this stage, and as conversations progress, we recognise that this may change for some sites. As such, we will provide an update on individual closure dates for sites once this has been officially agreed by relevant stakeholders.”

Local area manager Steve Mathieson said he was unable to comment at this stage but it is understood that his position will be preserved.

VisitScotland added that it is currently engaging with stakeholders to discuss local arrangements but gave no details as to what that may involve.

VisitScotland chair Lord Thurso said: “The tourism landscape has changed significantly in recent years. The demand for iCentres has reduced while the demand for online information and booking has continued to grow.

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“Our research shows that as an organisation, we have a greater and more impactful role to play in providing information before visitors travel.

“Prioritising a digital-first model of information provision allows us to reach potential visitors at those early planning stages when we can shape their future travel decisions.”

STA chair Amanda Hawick. Photo: Shetland News

Hawick said that despite “some inkling” the announcement on Wednesday morning came completely out “of the blue”.

With the cuts across government budgets, it was not surprising that the tourism industry was “again hammered”, she said.

“Losing the visitor hub is quite detrimental to tourism. It is absolutely imperative we have a hub here in Shetland that is face to face for the thousands of tourists that come to our islands,” Hawick added.

“It’s the local knowledge that we are going to lose once again.

“We will be putting this back to our members and will be asking them to voice their opinions because Shetland Tourism Association will become the only voice for tourism in Shetland.”

She called on local tourism and hospitality providers to join the association to strengthen and unite the voice of the sector.

“We have 40 odd members. Shetland has 325 licensed accommodation providers. All these people are going to be affected by this, and people have no voice to represent them,” Hawick said.

“I encourage everybody to join the STA to have one voice for Shetland.

“Tourism is a significant GDP sector to our islands (…) so we will have a committee meeting to discuss all the implications and looking how and where the STA could make a difference.”

Meanwhile the manager of town centre organisation Living Lerwick, Emma Miller, said she was “really sorry to read this news”.

She said: “The tourist office is a fantastic asset to the town centre for visitors and local folk alike, so it’s going to be a real miss as there is nothing really to replace it in terms of the visitor information service in the town centre.

“I’m sure there are still plenty of visitors who don’t plan every moment of their holiday before leaving home, so there’s certainly still a place for an information centre and hopefully a local solution will be found.”

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart added: “News of the closure of the network of iCentres by VisitScotland in favour of a digital-first strategy will come as a shock today, especially to those employees keeping centres open.

“Tourism in Shetland is in a renaissance after the Covid-19 pandemic and TV exposure thanks to the namesake police drama.

“It is important to ensure visitors get the message that Shetland is open for business and they will be welcome.”

VisitScotland said it will invest its resources and expertise in a digital-first strategy.

The agency said it would target channels it knows visitors use to inspire and influence where visitors go, when they come and what they do, including promoting lesser-known destinations and quieter times of year.

Lord Thurso added that the new approach would help the national tourism organisation to deliver its core purpose to drive the visitor economy and grow its value to Scotland by reaching more people and influencing visitors from Scotland’s key global markets.

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