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Visitor attractions have their say on VisitScotland’s plan to scrap star rating scheme

Bosses at visitor attractions in Aberdeen and Peterhead have criticised the national tourism body for deciding to ditch the current system in 2025.

Peterhead Prison Museum is one of Aberdeenshire's five-star attractions. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.
Peterhead Prison Museum is one of Aberdeenshire's five-star attractions. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

Tourists have grown used to seeing stars on their trips to Scotland, thanks to the Quality Assurance Scheme which exists in many places.

The initiative, which was introduced in the 1980s, covers thousands of holiday homes, serviced and self-catering accommodation, youth hostels, caravan and camping facilities and a plethora of visitor attractions across the country, both in our major cities and stretching all the way from Barra and Ballater to the Borders.

These sites have been assessed by VisitScotland officials, given a three, four or five-star ranking, and those who run amenities such as Aberdeen Science Centre and Peterhead Prison Museum have gained valuable advice on how to improve matters in the future.

Every place is checked for standards

But now, the Press and Journal can confirm that the QAS is being scrapped – or, as VisitScotland has described it, ‘retired – at the end of March next year.

And the decision has provoked a backlash from who those who believe it will leave the public reliant on sites such as TripAdvisor.

Aberdeen Science Centre holds the prestigious VisitScotland five-star award. Pic: Paul Glendell

Bryan Snelling, the chief executive of Aberdeen Science Centre, which has a five-star rating, previously gained the same award when he was in charge of the city’s Gordon Highlanders Museum. So it’s obvious that he knows his business in the sector.

‘An ill-conceived idea’

He said: “I am particularly unhappy about this decision. It is an ill-conceived idea and one that had no input from the QA holders.

“Losing an established, objective scheme like this with nothing to fill the space does not give the visitors to attractions and accommodation any assurances about what they are going to get. How do we tell the world just how good we are and that they should come to us (and pay out hard-earned money) if we have no way of comparing?

“Also, we have worked hard and spent money over the years to get to and keep the award, so not being able to use it will be hard to accept.”

His concerns were echoed by Alex Geddes, the operations manager at the Peterhead Prison Museum, which enhanced its status from four to five stars with the assistance and recommendations of those in charge of the QA scheme.

He said: “I will miss their expert extra set of eyes on our performance as I have always found the officers to be fair and they were there to help us through the process.

“In addition, I fear for our international visitors because many who have come here have mentioned that VisitScotland is their go-to site before arriving and they use the star rating as a guide when they are compiling their itinerary.

‘QAs play a critical role’

“So, without that guidance, we may miss out on potential visitors if they have to find their own way. I know that sites such as TripAdvisor might be an option, but what they can’t do for us is to help us by way of mystery visits and positive face-to-face feedback.

“I really hope they might reverse this decision as Scotland is so well known for high-level service and, for me, the QAs play a critical role in preserving these standards.”

Alex Geddes, operations manager for Peterhead Prison Museum. Picture by Kami Thomson.

However, there seems little prospect of a volte-face, considering how VisitScotland defended their commitment to dispense with the status quo in less than 12 months.

And this follows on from the tourism body’s recent controversial decision to shut 25 tourist information offices throughout the country during the next two years.

An agency spokeswoman told the P&J: “As with all responsible organisations, we must regularly review our priorities to ensure we can continue to deliver our core purpose to drive the visitor economy and grow its value in Scotland.

‘Changes in consumer behaviour’

“As part of our review, we have made changes to the way we deliver business advice and support and are working on a transition plan before the Quality Assurance scheme is retired at the end of March in 2025.

“The QA scheme has achieved a lot for Scotland in its almost 40 years of existence, but participation has been declining over recent years.

“There are also considerable changes in consumer behaviour and the needs of businesses. While consumers are looking to user reviews to help inform their own holiday planning, we know that businesses are using the rich information provided by these reviews to manage their online reputation.

“Delivering a quality experience that meets or exceeds, visitor expectations is crucial.”

Gordon Highlanders Museum.
The Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen is a five-star attraction. Image: DC Thomson.

A decrease in use since 2019

When asked for the figures on how many businesses use the QA initiative across the north and north-east, VisitScotland provided some evidence of a decrease.

But their statistics also backed up just how many people providing accomodation and tourist attractions are still employing a system which they feel works for them.

In 2019, there were 54 businesses using it in Aberdeen city, 270 in Aberdeenshire, 128 in Moray and 862 in Moray, amounting to a total of 1,314.

As of 2023, these figures had diminished to 19 in Aberdeen, 208 in Aberdeenshire, 85 in Moray and 578 in Highland; which still represents a significant tally of 890.

John McLeish is the chief executive of the Gordon Highlanders Museum.

‘I am confident that we will continue to benefit’

John McLeish, the chief executive of the Gordon Highlanders Museum, said he had no issue with the reasons why the tourism organisation is changing the way it operates.

He added: “We have always valued our five-star rating, but I can understand why VisitScotland is reviewing the way it engages with businesses across the sector in what is a challenging economic climate.

“While it’s sad to see the QA Scheme being phased out, I am relatively relaxed, because our visitors use a wide range of platforms to both find us, as well as to give very welcome feedback for which we are always grateful.

“I am confident that we will continue to benefit from a close working relationship with VisitScotland and I look forward to hearing more about their plans.”