Monday, 21 October 2013

Bute's struggle with tourism

It's now been over 2 months since I became an official resident of Bute, in that time there has been one issue that bothers me every day. Yes, I'm heading down that controversial path of the ongoing problem of attracting and maintaining tourists to the island.

Prior to moving here I had visited Bute for a weekend mid-winter, rented a holiday flat for a week in the spring and came over for a few day trips so I have experienced the island as a tourist under several different guises.  This along with my now local status has provided me a good varied insight into the problem.

On my first trip here I didn't have high expectations, for those that live on the nearby mainland Bute is actually Rothesay in the same way that Cumbrae is actually Millport.  Rothesay, for most of those that should provide the annual lifeblood of day trippers and weekenders think this is the place your granny went when she was wee. A rundown seaside town on the Clyde that has little to offer.

A shocking survey conducted in Glasgow revealed 78% of respondents did not know where Bute was (perhaps would have been less if you had asked them where Rothesay was), 18% had never heard of it and 28% would not consider it as a holiday destination.  I'm not surprised at the first two responses although from personal experience I would suggest more then 28% would discount it as a holiday choice.
In fact when I announced that I was moving here most people questioned why on earth? and as it turns out most of those people had never visited either.  With the Commonwealth Games headed to Glasgow next year I wonder how many visitors will be tempted to Bute, providing any of my fellow Glaswegians can give them directions!

The view of the uneducated and ignorant you might think? The view of someone who wouldn't appreciate the place anyway, so no point them coming if that's what they think?
Until recently I would also have discounted coming here and I don't consider myself uneducated.  I had explored most of Scotland and indeed many parts of the world prior to visiting this Victorian town on my doorstep. When I did eventually arrive off the Rothesay ferry, I found an island beyond that I instantly fell in love with.

I recently joined twitter as a way of promoting my blog and was disappointed at the lack of followers for VisitBute compared to our island neighbours, especially considering Bute has the largest (albeit declining) population and has recently underwent a costly rebranding effort.  While I don't in any way claim twitter popularity as the defining test for destination desirability there is no escaping that in this day and age social media is a great indicator, at least, of marketing success.

As it stands today the twitter followers (with population figures from 2011 census) are

VisitBute 282 (population approx 6500)

VisitCumbrae 286 (population approx 1800)

VisitArran 3604 (population approx 4600)

(Just as a side note the twitter account for Mount Stuart currently has 793 followers, make of that what you will.)

It comes as no surprise Arran exceeds on twitter as it exceeds in marketing itself in general.  With whisky, beer, cheese, toiletries amongst others, the Arran brand is alive and kicking before you even start on the 'Scotland in miniature' slogan.  Those people I know that have never considered a trip to Bute have made at least one if not several visits to Arran.

With the sharp population decline and a general apathy by many locals and businesses I wonder if Bute will ever turn it's reputation around.  For those that can see past the faded grandeur the island is just as beautiful as the more popular and better known Scottish choices. It has several good restaurants, pubs, visitor attractions, walking, sailing and breathtaking scenery to name a few.  In theory it should punch above it's weight.

This is why every day I feel dismayed and frustrated by poorly presented shop fronts and displays with contents catering for a generation that does not represent the future, businesses that close at lunchtimes and Sundays despite weekend tourists and a general lack of entrepreneurism.  These individuals are failing not only the businesses and individuals that do care but the island's tourism and population as a whole and continue to perpetuate Rothesay's reputation and appearance of a has been seaside resort.

Everyone knows that tourism = money = jobs = a better quality of life = everyone happy.
Tourism on Bute currently accounts for approx 40% of the economy, not an insignificant number, but one that could still improve greatly.

Don't get me wrong there are plenty of exceptions, individuals and groups that take pride in their business and their island.  Sadly, when I pass some of these same businesses they are often quiet as the number and quality of tourists they aim to attract have not yet realised Bute has so much to offer.  It would be sad if they couldn't survive due to the failure to attract the right type of tourist.

There seems to be constant debate, reports and surveys on how to rebrand the island, how to attract more tourists and what problems need to be prioritised.  I won't get into the bigger often political issues but sometimes you just need to stop talking and start doing and more importantly you need to be passionate about what you do.

As a tourist and a local I love Bute, despite it's flaws, and I think it would be a disservice to stand back and watch the erosion continue.  I don't have big solutions but spreading the word about the amazing things Bute does have to offer via twitter, blogs and any other means is my own small way of championing this underdog of an island.  However, I do believe that it is the individuals with passion and perseverance, not restrained by politics, that often make the biggest changes.

Nostalgia about the Victorian heydays is all very well but that era is over never to return.  However, with some vision and initiative it is still possible to reverse the current reputation and in turn the future prospects for this little underrated gem of an island.

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