Skip to main content

Studying tourism geography in Scotland

| Judy Berthiaume

When a dozen Blugolds visited popular tourist destinations in Scotland this spring, they were doing much more than sightseeing.

The UW-Eau Claire geography majors, along with two of their professors, were gathering information and other data necessary to analyze how effectively Scotland is marketing itself to visitors from abroad, specifically millennials.

“Millennials are now a powerful force in the world of tourism, and tourist agencies, like VisitScotland, have ideas about what millennial tourists want and they are actively marketing to attract millennial tourists,” said Dr. Garry Running, a professor of geography. “We set out to investigate firsthand the real story of how Scottish ecotourism and heritage tourism, forms of sustainable-alternative tourism, are marketed to the millennial tourist.”


In Scotland, Blugolds visited popular tourist sites as part of their research on how Scotland markets its tourism industry to millennials.

During the spring semester, students studied the geography, history, culture and natural history of Scotland, as well as the history of tourism in Scotland.

They also studied the millennial generation’s travel preferences and expectations, which differ from other generations, and how Scotland’s tourism industry is meeting those expectations.

“This field seminar was centered on tourism geography — who travels where, when and why — and involved a study of ecotourism and heritage tourism sites in Scotland from the perspective of a millennial-aged tourist,” said Dr. Ezra Zeitler, an associate professor of geography. “We read up on the history of Scotland’s tourism industry to understand what compels tourists to travel there and to understand how Scotland has marketed itself as a distinct place for tourists to visit.”

In May, the class spent nearly two weeks in Scotland, visiting cities and regions, interacting with people who live there and gathering data.

“Armed with smartphones loaded with a survey instrument they created on an app, our students hit the ground to quantify evidence of marketing efforts targeted to millennial tourists,” Running said, noting that they chose Scotland because it is a world-renowned tourist destination and a leader in adopting and practicing sustainable-alternative tourism principles.

The student-created survey app allowed them to record a variety of millennial-friendly experiences and marketing efforts as they observed and experienced them on the ground, he said.

In Scotland, students talked to tourism industry professionals, and collected data on tourism-related amenities in Aberdeen, Inverness, Aviemore, Edinburgh and several other places as they worked to determine the degree to which perceptions of Scotland, provided by its official tourism marketing organization, match the realities of visiting the country, Zeitler said.

Given millennials' use of social media, the researchers focused specifically on VisitScotland’s Instagram page.

Being part of a class that included international research was an incredible opportunity, said Scott Nesbit, a junior environmental geography major from Fall Creek.

“This class added value to my college education in many ways,” Nesbit said. “Learning about a place culturally, geographically and historically is great, but experiencing a place and gaining a true sense of it is invaluable.”

While the class centered on tourism in Scotland, the students found many similarities to tourism and tourism marketing in Wisconsin, Running said.

For example, they collected data in Aberdeen, a working town that, like Eau Claire, attracts visitors from nearby who go to town to shop and enjoy city amenities.

“Like Eau Claire, Aberdeen is a city exploring how to best develop a wider array of tourist destinations to attract more visitors, and more visitors from farther away,” Running said.

The class also collected data in Inverness, the gateway to the Highlands, and along the Great Glen and the shores of Loch Ness, as well as in the tourist town of Aviemore in Cairngorm National Park.

“Inverness reminded us of Hayward or Duluth, Minnesota,” Running said. “These cities are jumping off places from which tourists trek to experience the scenery, hiking and other outdoor amenities available in more remote locations nearby. Aviemore, a hopping tourist center in the Highlands, reminded us of Bayfield or Hayward, which are centers of Wisconsin’s Northwoods tourism.

“We found striking similarities between tourism in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and tourism in the Scottish Highlands.”

In the city of Edinburgh, an internationally renowned tourist destination, students collected data from popular tourist sites, while also participating in tourist activities, such as visiting Edinburgh castle and climbing Arthur’s Seat.

To contrast the tourism industry in the big city of Edinburgh, the team also collected data in the sleepy port town of Leith and the small village of Dunbar on the coast of the North Sea, Running said.

“In Dunbar, we visited the John Muir museum, a moving experience for our environmental geography students who were thrilled to learn about John Muir’s early years, and then hiked part of the John Muir trail through the Scottish North Sea-coast countryside,” Running said. “Muir, the famous environmentalist, spent some of his formative years in Wisconsin so it was important for us to see where he grew up, and how where he grew up influenced his environmentalism during his later life.”

The class was designed so students could balance experiencing what it’s like to be a millennial tourist in Scotland with what it’s like to investigate firsthand, like geographers, how tourism in a place like Scotland is marketed to millennial tourists, Running said.

Nesbit said traveling down The Great Glen along Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands was a highlight for him.

“Seeing Loch Ness has always been on my bucket list, but I never thought I would check it off,” Nesbit said. “However, this part of the trip was so much more than that. We stopped at Urquhart Castle and learned more about the history of the people and their utilization of the lands we were traveling.

“While we were being tourists, we were also observing and researching tourism. This portion of the trip made me realize how important tourism is to all the communities in Scotland.”

Another highlight was a hike through the Cairngorms National Park, a region students spent months studying before they traveled to Scotland, Nesbit said.

“Seeing the vast and amazing landscapes that we had been studying was definitely a high point,” Nesbit said. “Scotland has a different way of utilizing their national parks. People live in them and farm within them, which is different from the U.S. It was interesting to see they still had preservation of the lands while utilizing it for various purposes.”

Elizabeth Fedewa, a junior environmental geography major from Grand Ledge, Michigan, has long been interested in John Muir, whose environmental activism helped preserve many of the best-known wilderness areas in the United States.

“A highlight was hiking the John Muir Trail from Dunbar to East Linton,” Fedewa said, adding that she also enjoyed the John Muir Museum. “Learning about the work Muir did and seeing the environment that he grew up in has only made me more excited about my own future.

“I hope to work with conservation in Alaska after I graduate, so being able to compare the different environments was a good experience that I hope helps me to achieve my goals.”

So how is Scotland doing in marketing to millennials?

The Blugolds found that while Scotland is friendly to millennial visitors, it misses opportunities to market itself to a tech-savvy generation that embraces new experiences.

They determined the VisitScotland Instagram page highlights the country’s landscapes, but does not reflect many other things that are important to millennial travelers, such as enjoying local foods.

“Patterns emerged and some puzzling results, too,” Running said of their findings. “VisitScotland touts Scotland as a wild place, Europe’s last wilderness, and images on its Instagram page are dominated by scenery in the Highlands and along rugged coastlines, and romantic castles. Such imagery is consistent with the history of Scottish ecotourism and heritage tourism.”

However, few photos of people appear on the site, and the city life, dining and other experiences that millennial tourists favor rarely appear, he said.

“Millennial tourists seek experiences, from once-in-a-lifetime hikes and up-close looks at artifacts from our global histories, but we also value tasting authentic food and being exposed to people and their communities when we travel,” the researchers said. “These are crucial details lacking from the story VisitScotland tells, but they are details we noticed everywhere we went.”

While in Scotland, the Blugolds shared the preliminary results of their research with students and geography faculty from the University of Aberdeen.

The UW-Eau Claire students and University of Aberdeen students — including a Blugold studying abroad in the geography department at the University of Aberdeen — compared notes and shared research ideas.

The project gave students a greater appreciation for Scotland as a ecotourism and heritage tourism destination, and a better understanding of why the Scots choose the story of Scotland they tell to their millennial visitors in the way that they do, Running said.

Equally important, Running said, is that the UW-Eau Claire students can transfer these new skills and perspectives to tourism in Wisconsin.

“Their hard work earned them new skills as researchers and as savvy travelers, and perhaps most importantly, a deeper understanding and appreciation for the tourism industry from which we all benefit here at home,” Running said.

The skills and understanding students gain from hands-on experiences are why geography faculty make fieldwork — be it in the Chippewa Valley or in other parts of the world — a central part of their curriculum, Running said.

“Geography students here at UWEC share a common interest in traveling to experience cultures and landscapes new to them,” Running said. “More importantly, they are interested in learning how they can participate in ethical sustainable-alternative forms of tourism like ecotourism and heritage tourism.”

The research team’s story map shares their research methods and objectives, experiences and findings.

Top photo caption: Geography students spent time in Scotland this spring as part of a tourism geography field seminar class.