The Borders is a treasure trove for visitors. History, scenery, hospitality – it is well enough known, but not well enough to be taken for granted.
The magnet effect of the Edinburgh market cannot be ignored. Tourism in Edinburgh is a year-round operation. Visitor numbers break records. No-frills flights have increased numbers of individual visitors.
The Borders is not profiting fully from these developments. The Borders should attract a wider range of visitors. Promotion of the area should recognise its full potential, as well as challenging tired ways of marketing it.
How do folk get to the Borders? Many will come by car, particularly from the south and other parts of Scotland. But not everyone is in love with the car. Motoring is not cheap. Driving on unfamiliar roads is rarely relaxing and it is difficult to appreciate the landscape whilst concentrating on the road ahead.
Individual tourists could join day trips from Edinburgh, but choice is extremely limited. Tours taking in the Borders now do so almost as an afterthought, tacked on to excursions to Rosslyn Chapel or northern England. The Borders is more than Melrose, Scott’s View or the Wallace Statue, significant though they are. The Borders is evidently not seen as a destination in its own right.
Public transport should be a viable alternative, but with no rail stations in the Borders yet; that means the bus. Almost nothing is done to encourage individuals wanting to reach the area this way.
Local and national government invests heavily supporting public transport. With an emphasis on maintaining core routes, most bus services run from Edinburgh or Galashiels and provide access to the majority of the Borders towns and tourist attractions, but little is done to facilitate tourist travel in the area.
Cash from tourist journeys could represent a significant factor in the financial equation for rural services, which often survive on slim margins. Such use is sustainable and environmentally friendly. It supports local infrastructure, rather than placing demands on it, and tourists have the chance to meet locals on the bus, absorb the atmosphere and look at the scenery.
The reinstatement of the Waverley Line is seen as important for the development of tourism, but why wait until it is up and running? In the meantime a lot can be done to encourage tourist use of Borders public transport but it appears that neither the council nor the operators are interested in promoting use of their services to visitors.
Many moons ago the council’s public transport unit, with European assistance, produced a number of leaflets under the title “Get more from the Borders: Get more from the Bus”. They were a well kept secret. They are apparently no longer available. An e-mail requesting information did not even merit a response.
At the best of times First seems reluctant to publicise its services, although its website does feature an eclectic selection of Borders attractions, without access information. For those unfamiliar with the area, timetable information is difficult to come by. The Traveline website does not generally identify tourist sites as potential destinations and sometimes offers distinctly eccentric routings. Its “attractions and destinations” links list no attractions in the Borders. Its phone line uses a premium rate 0871 number, particularly expensive to anyone using a mobile phone.
As far as public transport is concerned, the Visit Scotland website is little help either. The “Getting to the Borders” section coos, “leave behind the motorways and ring roads and in little more than an hour from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle or Carlisle, you’ll discover that driving is a pleasure again. Traffic free roads and quiet country lanes reveal new breathtaking vistas”. Fine copy but of little use.
The whole tone is car-centric. The “bus” section refers travellers to company sites. The “rail” section makes no mention of connecting bus services, and assumes those arriving by train will continue their journey by car, since the Borders is “within two hours’ drive time from Edinburgh, Newcastle and Carlisle railway stations”.
There is plenty of information on cycling, but none on bus travel. The printed brochure seems to believe that North Berwick offers public transport links with the Borders and ignores Carlisle and its regular Rail Link bus service as a means of accessing the Borders.
Only intrepid travellers are going to start a journey uncertain whether they will be able to get back before nightfall. Rival bus companies might offer day tickets, but are unlikely to accept each other’s. SESTRAN does not offer day tickets. We do not make it easy for any would-be passenger, native or foreign, to take the bus.
Most tourists will visit, at some stage, tourist information centres, but the Edinburgh one does not highlight the Borders at all. No public transport information is in evidence. It may be available in those in the Borders, but how do visitors reach them in the first place?
A sample of flyers for the area’s main attractions contains few references to public transport access. Traquair, and Bowhill, both distant from any bus route, mention the nearest services and provide a local taxi phone number.
Paxton has a direct service from Berwick, but Thirlestane, a stone’s throw from Lauder, makes no mention of the regular Jedburgh/Kelso bus services, neither does Manderston, close to the Galashiels–Berwick route.
The Borders Walking Festivals have drawn many visitors to the area, demonstrating the potential of this activity. The booklet of 25 Borders Walks makes general mention of “good” bus services, but gives no council or operator contacts. The majority of walks assume car transport. In the main they start at car parks or admonish walkers to “park tidily at the roadside”.
There are plenty of examples elsewhere of good practice in promoting public transport access to tourist attractions. South of the border, Beamish Museum and Hadrian’s Wall devote complete leaflets to public transport access.
Tourism is a competitive business. The Borders cannot afford to be left behind. Why should any would-be visitor venture north of the Tweed when public transport in the Borders is such as mystery?
Promotion of tourist-friendly transport links is not rocket science. It should not be difficult to tap into the Edinburgh market. This may not be quite in the same league as PR wheezes such as sending Reivers to Leeds or buying back Berwick, but a less gimmicky process has as much potential to bring in the visitors and their spending.
What is needed is simple information. Bus timetables would be a good start. Marketing need be neither complex nor expensive. What about offering packages for the individual traveller, making use of bus and taxi services, providing access to a range of attractions, with local pub or restaurant food and accommodation, with perhaps discounts for using public transport? This would involve little more than a re-packaging of what is already on offer, with a limited degree of additional promotion. The costs would be minimal, and the concept could be developed in the light of experience.
There is also a need for real partnership between the major players – Scottish Borders Council, Scottish Enterprise and Visit Scotland – and service providers. Who takes the lead is immaterial, as long as they deliver. The prize is the promotion of sustainable tourism, and increased visitor numbers.
Even the best kept secrets can benefit from a little broadcasting.
Colin Wakeling is a retired teacher and coach driver.