Scotland’s national tourism agency is pulling the plug on its troubled website booking shop that was designed to be one-stop gateway to the country for tourists from all over the world.
After a decade of debt, overhauls and relaunches, the showcase Visitscotland.com booking system that was derided by many in the industry is now being abandoned.
The site was initially started as a public private partnership but ended up amassing £18 million in losses and costing the taxpayer £1.5m to buy back with £6m of debt attached.
It was criticised for being difficult to use, with anecdotal evidence tourists either went direct to hotels and bed and breakfasts or used other websites.
Of Scotland’s 26,000 tourism firms, less than one-fifth were signed up to the site, which had been due for a further overhaul in June 2013.
Some B&B owners are known to have quit the booking system in favour of their own or others.
VisitScotland said it will continue to provide a website at the same address, which it says is “around two-thirds the size of BBC Online” and receives 13 million visits a year. Users of the website will still be able to hit a “book” button to go to individual websites and a separate third-party online bookings agent which will be in place from the middle of next year.
However, the key dedicated one-stop system run in-house is to be dropped.
Alan Keith, a B&B owner from Dumfries and Galloway, said: “It never really worked, they should have pulled the plug on it a long time ago. It never seemed to fly, people stopped using it. They still pay for a presence on the website and that depends on the size and type of business. I’m surprised it’s taken this long.”
A B&B would typically pay between £500 and £1000 a year to be included on the website and this will be unchanged.
A commission of 10% was paid to VisitScotland by firms for each booking, but this will end – although it is understood any third-party provider would pay expect a similar form of payment.
VisitScotland is in talks with 30 third-party providers to take over bookings but their identities have not been revealed. Among the more popular such tourism portals are TripAdvisor and Expedia.
Malcolm Roughead, VisitScotland chief executive, said in a letter to the 5000 firms involved: “Over the last decade there have been a number of changes in the online booking landscape and there are now many more providers of this service. Against this backdrop, the European Commission has been looking at the rules around state aid and has now clarified VisitScotland and other tourist boards need to address the way in which we work with tourism businesses around provision of booking functionality via websites.
“We have decided to accelerate our longer-term strategy, which was to provide a website with a more direct connection between the visitor and the business.
“As a result VisitScotland will no longer act as a third party in taking bookings online.”
From mid-December, visitors hoping to make a booking will have to call or email the business directly to make a reservation, contact the business directly via its own website, click on a “book” button on the VisitScotland website or phone a VisitScotland information centre.
Marc Crothall, chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, said: “It was always going to happen in June, but bringing it forward is not ideal. However, VisitScotland are providing support to businesses during the transition.”
None of the 70 staff in the tourism agency’s digital wing will be affected by the changes.