Cost-of-living crisis: Opening hours set to be cut back at one in four Scottish visitor attractions

Public opening hours may be cut back at one in four Scottish visitor attractions due to the impact of rising energy bills, the cost-of-living crisis and a drop in audience numbers since the pandemic, new research has revealed.

A nationwide survey of museums, galleries, castles and palaces has found widespread concern about having to roll out recruitment freezes and redundancies to help them withstand what has been described as a “perfect storm” by the sector.

Around 15 per cent say they are at risk of insolvency if they do not get government help to pay their energy bills, which are expected to increase by up to 600 per cent in some cases.

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Other significant problems include recruitment of staff, which was cited by 83 of attractions, and the prospect of rising wage bills, identified by one in three.

Visitor attractions face cutting back hours

The survey by the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions (ASVA) and the Moffat Centre for Travel and Tourism Business Development at Glasgow Caledonian University drew responses from 88 different organisations representing 106 attractions.

The survey found 27 per cent of attractions are considering either reducing opening hours or even cutting the number of days they will be open. A further 4 per cent said they were looking at shutting down part of their sites in a bid to keep costs down.

One in five attractions reported their visitor numbers for this year were down by more than a third compared to 2019.

Carried out over over two weeks in late October and early November, the poll found 83 per cent of attractions believe “the worst is yet” to come in terms of the impact of the cost-of-living crisis.

Edinburgh Castle is hosting a 'Castle of Light' night-time event over the next couple of months. Picture: Nick Mailer

One in three attractions said they were planning to increase their ticket prices, but just 3 per cent said the expected increases would be above the rate of inflation.

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ASVA chief executive Gordon Morrison said: “Attractions are, for the most part, big buildings that require a lot of energy to heat and light. Around 36 per cent of the sector have their fixed price contracts due for renewal within the next year.

“They are being quoted as much as 600 per cent increases in their bills. So if the ‘average’ attraction is paying £35,000 this year, they will be paying £240,000 when their contract renews, which is, of course, completely unsustainable and would result in closures.

“On top of energy increases, the sector is also facing challenges with increasing costs on day-to-day activity, including increasing wage costs and increasing costs of materials and supplies. Two thirds of the sector are somewhat shielded from the energy crisis just now because they are tied into contracts beyond 12 months.

The National Museum of Scotland was home to an E.coli sculpture by the arist Luke Jerram earlier this year. Picture: Neil Hanna
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"However, for those whose contracts are coming to an end, the rising costs of energy are by far the biggest concern – it will simply not be possible to take on board 600 per cent increases in energy costs, and it will be impossible to pass these costs onto visitors.

“The majority of attractions are there to serve local communities as much, if not more, than international visitors. Much of our audience is from communities that cannot tolerate significant price increases.”

More than 40 per cent of attractions are considering recruitment freezes, according to the survey, which found 16 per cent were exploring temporary cuts to staff numbers and 4 per cent were looking at restructuring and redundancies to reduce spending.

Mr Morrison added: “Whilst there are certainly positives with the sector showing creativity and adaptability in generating new income streams and reducing energy consumption, I have concerns that the quality of product will be affected going forward.

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The Real Mary King's Close is one of the most popular attractions in Edinburgh's Old Town. Picture: Rob McDougall

"We are a people industry, and recruitment freezes and less investment in people development will have long-term impacts, and will not help Scotland in its ambition to be a world leader in 21st-century tourism.

“The sector is categorically not looking at cutting pay to cut costs. We are a people industry and it is recognised that we cannot scrimp in this area. This is a sector that has been labelled as low skill and low pay, but there are a wealth of great career opportunities within visitor attractions, with ever increasing pay and benefits.”

The research findings have emerged after Holyrood’s culture committee was warned of the impact of the “perfect storm” engulfing the cultural sector.

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The National Galleries of Scotland has warned it is considering cutting back opening times after soaring inflation, the cost-of-living crisis, rising energy bills and lower visitor numbers left the organisation facing a crisis “more serious and more difficult to deal with than the pandemic itself”.

National Museums Scotland has warned it faces having to make more than £2.1 million of cuts and will be unable to maintain its existing “level of activity” unless the Scottish Government intervenes with more funding.

Lucy Casot, chief executive of industry body Museums Galleries Scotland, said: “We saw a recovery begin this summer, but it has now stalled. Those visitors who are coming are spending about half what they did in the past, in particular. We are not seeing the international visitors returning or spending to the same level.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two) has been temporarily closed down by the National Galleries of Scotland. Picture: Jill Johnston
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“The levels of income that have been generated this year are not what was hoped for. Now, we have the cost-of-living crisis and the energy situation, which means that the organisations that were fragile going into this year are in crisis now.

“This is the biggest threat that people have seen to their organisations for more than 30 years. There are organisations that have discontinued their buildings and contents insurance, because they simply cannot afford it. There are organisations that are cancelling all, but emergency maintenance. Those things are not a sustainable position.

“Many organisations are reducing their opening hours in order to reduce costs, just at the time when communities are calling on them to be those warm free-to-access spaces that would be so valuable.

"The organisations have an obligation to care for their collections, so if they go into crisis and fail, finding a new home for those collections, which they hold on behalf of their communities and on behalf of the Scottish public, is something that will have to be faced up to.”

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ASVA chair Paul Nixon, general manager at Real Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh, said: “Edinburgh has been and will continue to be a desirable destination, attracting worldwide attention and we are reasonably confident guests will continue to visit the city in 2023.

“The pound against the dollar is helping make the UK an attractive and affordable destination for visitors from the US and we have strong hopes from these markets next year.

“In terms of domestic guests, the cost-of-living crisis is dramatically reducing spending on leisure. I very much see the financial squeeze impacting on the frequency domestic travellers visit attractions. It is therefore vital to offer high-quality, value-for-money experiences.

“For my site, the biggest concern I carry into next year is the challenge surrounding recruitment. Many candidates have simply not turned up for interview.”

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A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We recognise the enormous pressures facing businesses during the current crisis and have been engaging, directly and through key business organisations, including those in the tourism and hospitality sector, to best understand their needs and will continue to do so.

“Along with businesses, we have repeatedly called on the UK Government to take urgent action – as it holds key policy levers to do so. That includes a VAT reduction on energy bills, an extension of the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme and other loans.”