A Borders and Midlothian tourism action group has unveiled plans to use £350,000 to boost tourism businesses in the region.
The importance of tourism to the Borders was made clear in latest statistics which revealed that 4,000 Borderers now work in the industry, and that number is expected to rise further.
Figures from VisitScotland for 2015, the latest available, show that the number of people working in tourism in the Borders increased by 11% year on year, with tourism now accounting for one in 10 jobs in the region.
Now, engaging with both the wider tourism sector outside of the Borders Railway corridor and businesses along the line, the tourism action group’s two year project has secured £150,000 from the Borders Railway Blueprint Group, and a further £200,000 from Scottish Enterprise’s tourism destination development fund.
Looking to capitalise on the initial tourism boost delivered by the Borders Railway since its opening in September 2015, Midlothian Tourism Forum and the Borders Tourism Partnership collaborated to set up the new group, called Midlothian and Borders Tourism Action Group.
The new steering group is chaired by Abbotsford House chief executive Giles Ingram and is made up of private-sector tourism leaders from across both regions.
It involves Midlothian Council, Scottish Borders Council, Midlothian Tourism Forum, Scottish Borders Tourism Partnership, ScotRail and VisitScotland, and it has pledged to work collaboratively with local businesses.
This activity will build upon the success of the Borders Railway tourism development programme.
With an annual tourism spend of £314m currently generated in Midlothian and the Scottish Borders, the group will look to significantly boost that figure by 2020.
Activity set to take place over the coming years includes a series of business engagement events, business innovation workshops, product knowledge sessions, learning journeys, market research, international market development and a travel trade tourism development programme.
The Borders Railway has already driven an increase in tourism in both areas, with visitor numbers increasing and a rise in the number of businesses setting up or growing in Midlothian and the Scottish Borders to service the surge in additional visitors.
The group will also look to encourage businesses to develop products and services linked to digital technology.
Mr Ingram said: “The launch of the new action group is very positive news for both existing businesses in the Scottish Borders and Midlothian, and potential tourism enterprises.
“Through close collaboration with the business communities outside of the railway corridor, we hope to further increase their offering to the growing tourist population that the areas now command.”
Leaderdale and Melrose councillor David Parker, leader of Scottish Borders Council, added: “With an increase in the numbers of businesses and visitors to both areas thanks to the Borders Railway, it makes sense to capitalise on this early success and cement the economic benefit right along the new line.
“Through this new two-year funding package, we are looking forward to nurturing and developing businesses to deliver authentic experiences to tourists visiting Midlothian and the Scottish Borders”.
Edward Maitland-Carew, family trustee at Thirlestane Castle, said: “We are delighted to host the launch event for the group at Thirlestane.
“With the castle back to its former glory after major restoration work, we are excited to be part of this new initiative to promote the Borders and Midlothian, and to welcome many more events and visitors to the area.”
VisitScotland chief executive Malcolm Roughead said: “Tourism is more than a holiday experience. It creates jobs and sustains communities in every corner of Scotland all year round and is at the heart of the Scottish economy.
“These fantastic new figures show that, from hotel owners to waiting staff, tourism really is the driving force for providing the jobs of today and tomorrow.
“They also demonstrate the industry’s commitment to the 2020 strategy, which aims to generate economic growth through tourism.”
The region’s biggest tourist draw is the Tweed Valley Forest Park, with 347,000 visits annually, as of 2015, followed by the Teviot Game Fare Smokery and water gardens at Eckford, with nearly 154,000, and the Heart of Hawick, with 140,000.
Abbotsford and Melrose Abbey are the region’s next biggest tourist attractions, with 57,000 and 48,000 visits a year respectively.