THE much-heralded opening this week of the Johnnie Walker Scotch whisky attraction in Edinburgh was a big moment for its owner, the drinks giant Diageo, which spent four-and-a-half years bringing the project to life.
With a variety of bars, shops, restaurants, and interactive whisky-tasting features spread over eight floors, the one-time House of Fraser department store has been transformed into a tourism asset that looks set to serve the city well for years to come.
There are hopes, too, that it will have a regenerative effect in a part of Princes Street that seemed in need of a new lease of life, particularly since the arrival of the plush St James Quarter retail and hospitality destination at the other end of the famous capital thoroughfare.
It is certainly no mean investment by Diageo, which has made the attraction the centre-piece of its £185 million whisky tourism strategy in Scotland. The blueprint also takes in improvements at the distilleries that make up the “four corners” of the Johnnie Walker blend: Glenkinchie, Clynelish, Cardhu and Caol Ila.
But it is the kind of project that one can imagine paying for itself pretty quickly, especially when Edinburgh begins once more to attract the volume of visitors from overseas that it did before the pandemic struck.
It is probably fair to say that Edinburgh has not been hit as hard by the pandemic as other towns and cities across Scotland.
Nonetheless, the arrival of the Johnnie Walker attraction should certainly put a spring in its step, and there is perhaps something here that other places in Scotland could learn from. These places could certainly include Glasgow, where the fallout from extended lockdowns and the exodus of office workers – only now beginning to reverse as people gradually drift back to the workplace – has been devastating.
There are high-profile precedents of investments made in major attractions having a galvanising effect in struggling cities. The most famous, perhaps, is the construction of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which is widely held to have been the catalyst for the rejuvenation of the city in the Basque Country in the 1990s.
There is more recent evidence in Northern Ireland, where the development of the Titanic Belfast attraction has had a huge impact on the visitor economy.
Closer to home, something similar has been attempted in Dundee in recent years. The decision by the prestigious V&A (Victoria & Albert) to open a museum on the city’s waterfront has spearheaded a mammoth reimagining of a previously tired and derelict harbourside area.
The regeneration of the waterfront still has a long way to go, but already great strides have been made.
The V&A was opened in 2018, the same year that the city’s new railway station was completed, and there has been a significant revival of the harbourside area, where there are now hotels from operators such as Malmaison and Apex. New residential, leisure and commercial opportunities have also been opened up through the development of a range of zones along a vast stretch of the River Tay.
The work in Dundee is not complete, but already you can sense the difference it has made to a city that has been no stranger to economic challenges in recent decades. The revived waterfront has restored the area’s connection to the city centre, which in turn has benefited from the added footfall the quayside area now generates. A virtuous circle, as marketing gurus would perhaps say.
Of course, Dundee, like all towns and cities, will have challenges to face in the aftermath of the pandemic. But it is tempting to think that Glasgow could do with a shot of the kind of imagination that drew the V&A to Dundee and sparked the wider waterfront project.
This is not to decry the efforts currently being made to rejuvenate Glasgow city centre amid the ongoing fallout from the pandemic.
The renovation of Queen Street Station gave a much-welcome boost to the city, and the improvements to the public realm proposed by the ongoing Avenues project have the potential to make a positive difference.
Equally, it has been heartening to see the owner of the St Enoch Centre signal its ongoing commitment to the city.
The latest plans from Sovereign Centros, which follows the £40m it recently invested in a new cinema, retail and leisure space at the site, envisage the creation of new homes and office space over the next 15 to 20 years, taking in the vast building until recently home to the Debenhams department store.
The proposals have been welcomed by Glasgow City Council, which alongside Glasgow Chamber of Commerce has a long-term goal to attract more people to live in the city centre.
In the short term, though, there are pressing challenges that Glasgow has to deal with. There are concerns over basic cleanliness, which have intensified following the long months of lockdown, and fears over how the city will appear to visiting dignitaries when the COP26 conference is held in November.
To be fair to Glasgow, it is not the only Scottish city that is facing such difficulties: only this week property developer Chris Stewart highlighted his “frustrations caused by the lack of basic services such as rubbish collection, offensive graffiti and pavements in disrepair,” in Edinburgh via a post on LinkedIn.
In addition to worries over the general appearance of the city, the business sector in Glasgow remains concerned about the continuing absence of office workers.
Footfall remains low as people continue to be encouraged to work from home, which means ongoing difficulties for the cafes, bars and stores that depend on a steady flow of consumers around the city.
While these are matters requiring urgent attention, the long-term viability of the city must also be considered. In that regard, it would be good to know if some thought is going into drawing a big-ticket attraction to the city, be it a V&A-style museum or an attraction similar to The Making of Harry Potter studio tour on the outskirts of London.
After all, in years gone by, Glasgow has been the beneficiary of such vision, most recently with the arrival of the SSE Hydro live music venue in 2013.
The Hydro sparked a wave of hotel investment, and played no small part in the renaissance of Finnieston as the area to eat and drink in the city before the pandemic struck.
However, it is a different world now. Glasgow needs a lot more than hotels and bars to spark its revival.
The time has come for a big idea.