Tourist numbers plunge amid pandemic as outdoor attractions fare best

Edinburgh Zoo was the most popular fee-charging destination, while the capital's castle saw visitor levels drop massively.

Tourist attractions Edinburgh zoo and castle impacted differently by Covid-19 pandemic iStock

The number of people visiting Scotland’s tourist hotspots has fallen dramatically in the last two years amid the global coronavirus pandemic, according to recent figures.

The statistics show visitors have been making the most of outdoor attractions, such as Edinburgh Zoo, with the capital’s castle among the places seeing visitor numbers plunge.

In 2021, the number of people visiting the ancient castle on Edinburgh’s Castlehill fell by more than 80% compared with 2019.

Last year 423,866 tourists visited, a drop of over 1.5 million since pre-pandemic levels.

Edinburgh Zoo was the most visited fee-charging attraction in the country last year with more than 600,000 people attending in a 12-month period.

It saw visitor numbers rise by 15% compared to before the pandemic and joins the Highland Wildlife Park, near Aviemore, as the only places to see an increase in visitors in 2021 among the country’s top ten most visited attractions.

The figures were released by the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions (ASVA) on Thursday.

The National Museum of Scotland was the country’s top free attraction in 2021 with more than 660,000 visitors in 2021.

This was a drop of just over 70% on the 2019 figures, when it attracted almost 1.3 million tourists.

Paid-entry attractions welcomed just over nine million visitors during 2021, compared to over 20 million in 2019, a fall of 55%, while free venues had just over 20.2 million visitors last year compared to 35.5 million in 2019, a drop of just over 43%.

Gordon Morrison, chief executive of ASVA, said, while visitor numbers in 2021 were up on the year before, “the latest figures highlight what a uniquely challenging time the visitor attractions sector, and wider tourism industry, has experienced over the past 12 months”.

Across both Scotland’s free and paid-for attractions overall, visitor numbers were more than 47% down on pre-pandemic levels last year, according to the data compiled by ASVA in conjunction with the Glasgow Caledonian University’s Moffat Centre for Travel and Tourism Development.

Mr Morrison said the figures showed “clear evidence that our sector has been hit extremely hard for a considerably extended period of time due to the consequences of the pandemic”.

He said: “Although we’ve seen some very welcome positive signs that business at a number of attractions is beginning to bounce back, so many of our operators are still in survival mode, and the vast majority, unfortunately, still face a very long road to recovery.”

Professor John Lennon, director of the Moffat Centre, warned Scotland’s tourist attractions would not see the numbers of overseas visitors return to pre-pandemic levels until 2025.

“Business recovery will depend very much on the custom of the people of Scotland and the UK,” he said.

“Visiting Scottish attractions not only demonstrates support of them, it helps safeguard the future of a sector that’s a vital contributor to the country’s economy and also performs a crucial, custodial role in protecting Scotland’s heritage, culture and identity.”

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