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Business / Labour MSP calls for U-turn on tourist office closure plans

The Lerwick office had the highest income of all iCentres in 2023/24 after Edinburgh

Lerwick tourist office. Photo: Jim Mullay

HIGHLANDS and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant has called on VisitScotland to reverse its decision to close 25 tourist offices, including Lerwick, between September and March 2026.

Speaking after she met with Scottish Government minister for employment and investment Tom Arthur last week, the MSP said island communities would particularly be hard hit by a decision which has not been consulted on.

She added that VisitScotland’s decision not to carry out detailed island impact assessments, as required by law, was “shoddy at best, arrogant and ignorant at worst”.

The national tourism agency, largely funded by the Scottish Government announced earlier this year that all its remaining iCentres, apart from Edinburgh, would close as people plan their holidays online these days.

The Lerwick centre at the Market Cross is set to close in November this year with the Kirkwall centre due to follow in September next year.

There are moves afoot by industry group Shetland Tourism Association to look into taking on the running of the tourist centre as a community asset.

A freedom of information (FOI) request by Rhoda Grant found that almost 1.4 million people visited an iCentre in 2023, including 52,991 through the door at the Lerwick centre, almost as many as recorded pre-pandemic in 2019.

The FOI also revealed that the Lerwick iCentre generated a net income of £123,000 in 2023/24, the highest of all visitor information centres apart from Edinburgh, and well above the 2019/20 figure of £79,000.

“VisitScotland’s decision is based on people moving online to book holidays, but 1.37million visitors used the iCentres last year and sales have increased in some centres since pre-pandemic,” Grant said.

“I have no doubt many will have used digital sources to plan their holiday too but many clearly still felt the need to seek more information in person when they were in the country so there is a definite demand there.”

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In an opinion piece distributed by VisitScotland to local media outlets in December of last year, and headlined ‘supporting local tourism’, islands manager Steve Mathieson celebrated the strong recovery of local tourism following Covid and assured readers of the national agency’s commitment towards supporting Shetland tourism.

Meanwhile it has emerged that the total number of staff affected by the closure of the 25 centres is unclear. While VisitScotland advised that 90 would be affected, the Scottish Government refers to 130 in its correspondence with the Labour politician.

Labour MSP Rhoda Grant. Photo: Shetland News

“VisitScotland claim that most of the jobs will be retained through redeployment but where will island based staff be redeployed to?” she asked.

“It’s not clear from the information provided by VisitScotland and the Scottish Government exactly how many staff will be affected by these closures, and what alternatives will be offered to island based staff.

“This will have a far bigger impact in island communities and will only seek to add to the depopulation of our islands.

“For an organisation that is almost entirely funded by the Scottish Government, one would have thought that to disregard government policy on this is shoddy at best, arrogant and ignorant at worst.”

The minister with responsibility for small business, innovation, tourism and trade Richard Lochhead, is currently unavailable due to health reasons but he met with VisitScotland in March urging it to continue discussions with partner organisations and to listen to any concerns that communities and businesses may have.

In a letter Arthur advised Grant that the decision to close the iCentres was a “strategic and operational matter” for VisitScotland which has been endorsed by its board.

He added that he will:

  • raise concerns with VisitScotland and ask them to consider/reconsider the impact on islands in particular
  • ask VisitScotland to provide her with more information and clarity around the reasons for the decision
  • follow up with her and meet again if needed

Grant said: “There’s been no prior engagement with MSPs on this. The concerns are being brought to us by constituents and by local newspapers representing the needs of their communities.

“The tourism and hospitality sector has been one of the worst hit from the pandemic and we need to be bolstering these businesses at this time, not cutting services to the millions of people who visit Scotland annually. We must get this decision reversed.”

Although a devolved matter to Scotland, all six Orkney and Shetland candidates in the upcoming general election have expressed their concern about the plans.


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