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TheLunch: Dolphins and cruise ships to change geometry of Scottish tourism

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A bright but chill day at the dawning of 2017 day proves as good as any to think about fresh ventures.

Not only do the guests at our lunch have major projects to bring to fruition this year, but our choice of venue, Jack’s Steakhouse, is also a relative newcomer to Aberdeen’s restaurant scene, focusing on local provenance and great cuts of meat.

Fiona McIntyre is spearheading one of Aberdeen’s most exciting projects. Greyhope Bay is an ambitious scheme which envisages a £10million dolphin watching centre with restaurant, theatre and interactive exhibit space overlooking Aberdeen Harbour.

The Greyhope Bay project’s catchline is currently “bringing hope the grey city” – a welcome notion as the area fights back from the effects of the oil and gas downturn.

Chris Bain is a director of the Aberdeen Harbour Board. Just before Christmas, the harbour revealed it would push ahead with its own ambitious plan – a £350million expansion into Nigg Bay.

Both projects are independent of each other yet symbiotic. And if Ms McIntyre in particular lines up the required funding support, both the new harbour and the visitor centre could be up and running in 2020.

“This year is what we are describing as our ‘it is happening year’,” said Ms McIntyre.

“This has been a project I have been running three years now but really it is the last year it has come together.”

Our third guest, Beverley Tricker, is the founder of Tricker PR and a veteran of tourism marketing in the region. She too is also a fan of marine life – it was her firm that highlighted the opportunities for natural awe and wonder by describing Banffshire as “Scotland’s Dolphin Coast”.

Ms Tricker is enthused about the new facilities being developed in Aberdeen that are being driven by passionate individuals, including Ms McIntyre’s project as well as the proposed £5million visitor and heritage centre at Aberdeen’s Rubislaw quarry being led by Hugh Black.

She said: “It marks them out as being completely different. That and the quarry development project. There are so may synergies. And both are being driven by individuals who have seen huge potential in something that Aberdeen is incredibly rich in that no-one has taken on.”

The recently opened steakhouse makes it easy to decide on starters by delivering the menu’s greatest hits on the Jack’s sharing platter, which is laden with mac & cheese, honey glazed wings, BBQ ribs, sweet potato wedges and crunchy onion rings.

As we tuck in, Ms Bain sets out the opportunity for the north-east’s tourism industry when cruise ships begin pulling into port as a result of new quayside at Nigg Bay.

“The schedule is 2020 for completion,” she says. “Cruise ships work three or four years ahead. That is why the marketing is starting now.

“Feedback from the cruise ships is very strong in terms of what the city and shire has to offer.

“The cruise ship operator is interested in whether or not the ship can dock alongside the quay. It is basic stuff.

“There are not many ports in Scotland where the boat can actually come alongside. They prefer to do that rather than putting their passengers onto little boats. Particularly with the demographic of cruise ship passengers. They are not all able to be jumping on and off of boats. Getting alongside is the holy grail.

“In terms of what the city and shire has to offer it is fantastic. They see it as an untapped region.

“The most successful port this summer is Orkney. They have all sorts of wonderful things going for them there. But many locations like that have capacity issues and Aberdeen and shire doesn’t.

“We already had 26 cruise boats booked this summer but they are smaller boats and it is still a tiny part of the market that has gone absolutely crazy.

“They are talking about 676,000 passengers to Scotland this summer, 808 cruise calls.

“That’s been seven years of continuous growth. It is a real success story.

“And when you ask the cruise ship executives when is it going to peak they say this is you just getting going in Scotland, because of the diversity of the destinations, the beauty, the fact there is golf and castles. Also that Scotland is seen as safe.”

There is a tantalising prospect of thousands of well-heeled tourists could either embark or disembark in Aberdeen and take in the Dolphin centre right next door – and that’s just one upside.

There is also the tantalising arrival of our main courses. Three lunchers have gone for tender fillet steaks with a variety of sides to choose from, while Ms Tricker made a slight variation on the theme by ordering the Bookmaker steak sandwich.

Ms McIntyre, who opted for some dauphinoise potatoes alongside her lunch, reveals the first major initiative in her mission to raise the funds for Greyhope Bay, which could win up to 50% of its funding requirements from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The project will be formally launched at a gala dinner and fundraiser on the site of the proposed visitor centre at an event to be hosted by broadcaster and Deacon Blue drummer, Dougie Vipond on 31 March.

“We will have a marquee so people can come and connect with what he offer is but we will also have a virtual reality experience so you will get to see what the offer is,” says Ms McIntyre.

“Then on Saturday we will open to the community, we will have stalls, the 3D virtual reality and games. It is all about raising our profile and finance and getting the community behind us.

“It has come along so much and I am really excited to share it now actually. It will be a launch in a sense so people will know what the offer is then what we will do is spend the next two years trying to raise the capital, then we look at a 2019 and 2020 start.

“We have been modelling the plan on the science galleries in Dublin and London.

“They have small spaces but they build these exciting programmes based on story telling.

“It is all science but it has this other level of engagement for kids and adults as well.

“We would be looking to build repeat business with a strong programme.

“The dolphins are the hook. But the setting itself and actually that whole area is one of the best viewing points in the whole city.

“Once you get people there, there will be so much opportunity in terms of marketing what the image of Aberdeen is, from something that is a little less industrial to something connected to its beauty and its coast lines.”

We resist the temptation of Jack’s Steakhouse pudding menu and order a round of coffees.

Ms Tricker adds that the region now has the chance to change the “geometry” of Scottish tourism.

“There is something very emotive about dolphins.

“This sort of inspirational tourism is perfect for marketing.

“Aberdeen has always struggled to have a unique selling point in tourism terms. We have museums, night life great hotels – we have always had capacity on the weekends – and we have got the gateway to castles and whisky.

“There’s not yet been a must-see attraction in Aberdeen because no one has taken that step to build it.

“This could be something not just for visitors to Aberdeen but visitors to Scotland.

“It has always been difficult to pull visitors out of the triangle of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness. If we can make the triangle got the way and change the geometry.”