Broadband and mobile phone coverage in the Highlands and Islands should be improved faster to match the modern-day quality of tourism businesses in the area, according to a leading restaurateur.
Scottish Food Commission chair Shirley Spear said connectivity is now one of the biggest challenges facing the tourism industry in meeting customer demands.
“As visitors’ expectations have rapidly grown, the region risks losing business to other parts of Scotland and elsewhere because of connection problems,” said the founder and director of the world-famous Michelin-starred restaurant The Three Chimneys in Skye.
Mrs Spear said: “You can’t do without it now, from the perspective of the visitor and also from the perspective of the people who are asked to run their businesses in a professional manner.”
The former Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards (HITA) Ambassador of the Year was speaking to promote this year’s HITA awards, entries for which close on Saturday, 6 June. She credits awards schemes like HITA with helping raise standards and promote businesses.
Mrs Spear says successive governments and agencies like VisitScotland have helped tourism businesses to drive up standards and services, but more needs to be done to improve communications technology, especially for rural areas which are more dependent on reaching and attracting visitors.
She said broadband coverage at her own internationally-renowned restaurant near Dunvegan is intermittent and many other tourism operators have similar problems in the Highlands and Islands.
“Our tourism businesses are encouraged to be five star, upmarket and special, but in many respects we do not get the back-up we need. It is the biggest appeal I’m making at the moment – it’s all very well having terrific encouragement from the public agencies, but they are the people who have command over the issues like connectivity, as well as things like transport and housing, we need bigger and wider support now.
“Visitor expectations are now much higher than they ever were. People now want broadband and mobile phone connectivity wherever they go and that is something that is very poor in the Highlands and Islands.
“Even those holidaying on a budget expect everything to be laid on for them now. They want to be in a gloriously remote and peaceful place, enjoying the great outdoors, relaxing and being at one with nature but have all the modern day comforts as well.
“There has been so much money invested in the central belt in the last few years to the detriment of the Highlands and Islands in terms of road, rail and other infrastructure. We need to look as this very seriously because our businesses here are hugely dependent on tourism. This includes support for the FlySkye campaign (for scheduled flights to the island from the central belt.)”
Mrs Spear’s call for faster investment in communications competitiveness comes against the background of the public sector/BT-funded Digital Scotland programme, geared to bring high-speed fibre broadband access to around 95 per cent of premises in Scotland by 2018. Its related regional project, Digital Highlands and Islands, is intended to bring fast broadband to 84% of the region’s premises by the end of 2016.
Mrs Spear was appointed in February to her latest role, heading the 16-strong food commission which will provide advice to Scottish ministers and address the challenges facing Scotland’s food culture in the 2015 Year of Food and Drink.
She said huge strides have been made in recent years in improving standards and changing attitudes towards more quality-led tourism provision.
“There has been a massive change. From having been regarded as completely unimportant, tourism is now one of six top categories for economic development. It’s something I have been beating the drum about for years as tourism is so important to local economies.”
Mrs Spear also said awards schemes, like those run by HITA, help promote the industry and raise the quality bar among businesses.
“The level of expertise and ability within the Highlands and Islands is really high as it attracts people who want to run quality businesses and have greater knowledge about customer service at every level, from bunkhouses to the top hotels.
“This is helped by schemes like HITA as they are aimed right across the board and encourage business to be run on a highly professional level.
“I know from my own experience that the awards we won in the early days were hugely important to the growth and recognition of the restaurant as we tried to keep up with the Joneses in the cities.
“For us to get recognition in a remote part of the Highlands helped us attract more customers and spread the word more widely. The effect that winning an award can have on a business is huge.”
Marina Huggett, Chair of HITA, said: “Shirley Spear is an enormously experienced and respected businesswoman who has the best interests of the Highlands and Islands and the tourism industry at heart.
“We know from speaking to our members that connectivity is a major issue, particularly in the more rural areas, and it is something that could greatly benefit many businesses trying to match customer demands.”