A MAJOR tourist boost for Inverness and Loch Ness is on the cards after a deal was signed with a leading Chinese tour operator to bring up to 12,000 extra visitors a year to the area.
The agreement, struck between local businessman Willie Cameron and Nanhu Travel, could generate hundreds of thousands of pounds for the local economy.
“It’s a potential game changer on a whole series of fronts,” Mr Cameron said.
“The sheer volume of visitors we’re talking about coming here is huge.
“The Chinese love everything Scottish, and particularly Highland, from tartan to whisky and of course the Loch Ness Monster.
“They are thrilled by anything with a story, and they want the most authentic experience possible.
“That means staying at B&Bs as well as top hotels, visiting as many attractions as possible and taking part in all kinds of activities.
“The potential for accommodation and activity providers is enormous.”
Acting as the “man on the ground” for Nanhu and their subsidiary company Europe Champion Travel, Mr Cameron is working to get the word out about exactly what is on offer.
“This is a huge emerging market that I expect will generate hundreds of thousands of pounds for the local economy in the short term, but has the potential to be much bigger than that into the future,” he said.
His relationship with Nanhu began after two members of their staff visited the area earlier this year and got into conversation with Mr Cameron’s nephew, who took them on an impromptu tour.
This was then followed by a more formal visit in March and last week Mr Cameron flew out to the Chinese city of Guangzhou for the formal press launch of Nanhu’s 360-Degree Visit Britain campaign.
It aims to bring 40,000 visitors to UK shores annually and up to 40 per cent of those will head for the Highlands.
“While I was out there I had the chance to meet people from Ireland’s tourist agency as well as VisitBritain who both told me that this was going to be massive for the area,” he said.
“The Chinese are interested in everything we have to offer and have plenty of money to spend on giving themselves the best experience they can afford.”
And he added: “The other great thing from the local tourist industry point of view is that these visits will be year-round.
“I’ve got bookings for November through to February at the moment, so we’re not just talking about more people coming in the already busy summer season but right through the winter as well.”
The news comes as part of what could be a bumper year for Highland tourism.
A record number of cruise ships are expected to dock at Invergordon through the summer, carrying many passengers who will choose to visit Inverness while they are here.
The popularity of the North Coast 500 route, which begins and ends in Inverness, is also continuing to grow.
Graeme Ambrose, chief executive of Visit Inverness Loch Ness, welcomed the latest boost.
“Everyone knows how massive the Chinese market is as a country where lots of people are making serious amounts of money and starting to be given greater opportunities to get out in the world,” he said.
Questions have been raised about the ability of the Inverness area to cope with extra numbers of tourists after previous incidents of visitors being unable to find accommodation at peak times and Mr Ambrose agreed there was definitely a need for greater investment to take full advantage of opportunities like this.
He added: “It is also the case that businesses will need to be China-ready, to understand what Chinese visitors are likely to be looking for and just how best to let them know what we have to offer.
“That’s something we’re working on in our own organisation, just making sure we have information in Chinese online and working to achieve a presence on Chinese social media.”
Monica Lee-Macpherson, chairwoman of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and Moray Chinese Association (SHIMCA), said it was also important that tourism businesses properly understood Chinese cultural norms – such as an aversion to queuing – to avoid misunderstandings.
But she added it was obvious why visitors from the country would be so interested in coming to Scotland.
“The sense of history is something they are very interested in, and of a way of life that is very different to their own,” she said.
“Authenticity is very important to Chinese visitors and that’s something you get best up here.”