Old scotch in a new bottle?

Is image all in the land of whisky and bagpipes? Claire Munro explores how executives are trying to re-brand the Scottish experience.

The sands at Camusdarach are placid and beautiful. If you're hardy enough to venture into the freezing water, your view of the seabed is uninterrupted by seaweed, shingle and certainly not sewage.
The area exhibits the endearing cragginess of much of the west of Scotland's coastline, but also aspects of the brochure-friendly beach more conventionally associated with the picturesque.

It sounds like the perfect setting for a film, and indeed it was.

Local Hero showcased this tiny nook of Morar to great effect in 1983, giving the surrounding area a quick shower of publicity in the arid days before Braveheart and Scotland the Brand - an organisation established in 1994 to promote the distinctive brand values of Scotland for commercial advantage.

Late 2003 has seen the twin forces of feature films and marketability, in the shape of Harry Potter and the Autumn Gold campaign, propelling visitors to the Scottish Highlands in record numbers.

Scottish newspaper, The Herald, reported recently that tourism spend in 2003 is approaching the £1bn mark, of which UK visitors account for 85 per cent.

Tourism is of particular importance to the Highlands, where the industry employs 13 per cent of local people.

Kitsch and nostalgia

Wooed perhaps by the historical travails of the "teuchtar" - the Scottish word for a country person - set amid some mighty purrdy views, Highland visitors on average spend more than those from the rest of Scotland.

Figures can look pretty meaningless, but what can be discerned is that more people are choosing Scotland as a destination, bucking trends from the rest of the UK, which seems to have felt the effects of the Iraq war, according to VisitBritain, the official site of the British Tourist Authority.

The home of tartan kitsch may be exerting a nostalgic appeal entirely apolitical.

This is not something which present tourism gurus like VisitScotland Chief Executive Phillip Riddle feel guilty about: current strategies strongly emphasise "selling the experience rather than the place".

Considering the crash in visitor numbers wreaked jointly by foot and mouth and 9/11, some level of political disassociation is hardly surprising.

A couple of high profile visits to Scotland sum up the change: in 2001 we got foot and mouth, in 2003, Stella McCartney.

And there's nothing wrong with taking a leaf out of someone else's guidebook. Scotland is most often compared to Ireland (and oddly, apparently New Zealand too - maybe it's the sheep) as a holiday destination.

The fact that Ireland is the second most popular tourist destination for Britons has not been lost on those keen to promote mist-clad Caledonia, who have found Irish methods of self-promotion to be almost as profitable in international tourism as they are in the European Union.

The marketing thrust espoused by the two countries is eerie in its similarity.

While the newly-created agency Failte Ireland encourages "the packaging and promotion of specific product offerings to the international markets", the VisitScotland Annual Report of June this year proclaimed: "we have a growing understanding of who our customers are and what they want, and we are committed to making it ever easier for them to 'buy' Scotland."

This smug claim has the ring of truth. While the Scottish tourism industry chuckles over a dram at its impressive recovery, their Irish equivalent is looking for a booster shot.

Fiona Scott of Failte Ireland admits: "Ireland is becoming less competitive as a holiday destination".

What does the damage is the insurance premium - the third largest expenditure for hospitality operators after staff and consumables.

By contrast, the average premium in the UK is half that of Ireland, giving the Scots the vital edge over their whisk(e)y cousins.

'Pottering' about Scotland

As for "buying Scotland" everyone from the Scottish executive to Sean Connery is eager for movie types to do just that.

The incentive is clear: it is estimated that upcoming George Clooney-produced film, The Jacket, (soon to start filming in Broxburn) will generate £6m for the local area.

The cash cow however, is the Harry Potter franchise, filmed partly in the Highlands.

Scottish Screen - the official face of film in Scotland - eagerly anticipates that the new film "could conjure up £3 million for the Highland economy".

Several operators advertise tours for Potter pilgrims on the web, and one or two even suggest you "visit other local attractions".

Meanwhile, the Highlands of Scotland Tourist board website not only boasts of "Harry Potter Mania" in its domains, but informs unsuspecting browsers that the new book, its DVD and video are on sale now.

A plethora of Potter tours descended this autumn on Glenfinnan, home to the Glenfinnan Viaduct (or "the Harry Potter bridge"), which appeared in the second film.

It is also the site of a Jacobite monument and visitor centre, which, National Trust staff complain is completely ignored by Potter seekers.

That film publicity could come with strings attached is surprising, but not uncorroborated.

Emma Newlands, the editor of a newsletter for holiday cottages, has heard stories of Potter fanatics stealing property from places they associate with the film.

The film buzz is also at odds with the desire of tourism executives to promote Scotland's traditional "icons".

Young Adam or Trainspotting after all, are unlikely to make phones ring in tourist information centres.

Ideally, a film or television programme could highlight the local scenery: tourist haunt Badenoch and Strathspey these days likes to go by the epithet "Monarch of the Glen country".

Dr Joanne Connell of Stirling University contends that "place specific film and TV programmes often result in an increase in tourism to showcased destinations".

The latest destination to be showcased has cornered what you might call a developing market: the pre-schoolers.

Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull, stands in for "Balamory" on the eponymous kids' TV show, and architecturally resembles a giant sweetie shop.

A very unlikely sort of place to rival Disneyland in kids' affections, the harbour's tourist information office has received an "unparalleled" number of enquiries, thanks to its televised alter ego.

So is re-branding all about pretending?

The dour Scots' persona may have been used as an excuse in the past for gruff customer service, but be warned that it would no longer be the same.

The "myth of the dour, downbeat Scot", according to Tourism Minister Frank McAveety, is to be banished amidst worries that "the inability to attract and retain a high-quality workforce" may cramp a booming tourism industry.

On holiday in the Highlands in August, I met an Englishman who wished to break his journey along Loch Ness at Urquart Castle, which was recently conferred five-stars for its facilities.

Unfortunately for the touring Englishman, the facilities (including the castle, the toilets, and views of the Loch) were unavailable without first paying an admission fee at the visitor centre.

This is the sort of stinginess which has plagued British tourism for years, and which belies all the bubbly brochure talk about "packaging".

Alasdair Gray once famously wrote that Glasgow did not exist in the imagination in the way that Rome did.

These days we don't need imagination, as Scotland is just the click of a mouse away. But even if it wasn't, our old tartan-and-bagpipes stalwarts look set to endure.