Fishing tourists spending £86m a year in Scotland are going overseas because of plummeting salmon stocks, experts have warned.
Anglers spent an average of £4,700 per head during trips to Scotland, according to the most recent study.
But tour operators and tourism bosses report the lack of salmon in Scotland has seen anglers head abroad to Russia, Norway and Iceland.
The steep decline of Atlantic salmon numbers and move towards overseas breaks is having a devastating on people who rely on fishing for their livelihood.
Andrew Grainger of the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group – which has researched the value of fishing to the economy – warned that angling tourists will shun Scotland if there is no chance of catching a salmon.
He said: “I think all organisations involved with salmon fishing have expressed concern.
“Anglers don’t want to be coming here thinking they have no chance of catching anything.
“The Scottish scenery has got a lot to do with it as well. But people wouldn’t come if there weren’t any salmon to catch, that’s for sure.
“During the shoulder months of January, February and March when there’s not a lot else happening, it’s bringing people into the countryside.
“You’re not going to keep coming back year after year if you’re not catching anything.”
Lifelong angler Howard Evans, a 55-year-old businessman from Norwich, bought a holiday home close to the River Lochy in the Highlands because of his passion for fishing for salmon in Scotland.
But he now takes annual trips to Argentina, Iceland and Russia.
He said: “I bought a cottage a few years ago but I travel abroad a lot for my fishing. The salmon fishing in Scotland has deteriorated terribly unfortunately.
“I fish in Argentina, Iceland and Russia so I can catch something. But it’s almost becoming a rich man’s sport and it used to be affordable.
“It’s not all roses in the garden of fishing abroad but it’s nowhere near as bad as Scotland.
“I would absolutely be doing my fishing in Scotland if the salmon were there. It’s not just about the fishing, I love the Scottish people.
“As I get older, I enjoy airports less and less. I don’t have a desperate urge to travel abroad but I want a realistic chance of catching something and that’s why I’m doing it.
“It must be a big knock to the Scottish economy, especially the rural economy. It’s the fuel stations, the pubs, the jobs for the ghillies.”
The Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group published an in-depth report in 2015 called the Benefits, Volume and Value of Country Sports Tourism in Scotland.
It showed angling tourists were particularly valuable to the economy as they tended to stay longer and participate in other activities.
More than 40% went shopping for gifts, 45% visited a castle or historic site and 19% played golf.
Three in 10 had a family income of more than £100,000 per year, with the majority of households earning more than £50,000.
The report also found Scotland had the advantage when it comes to scenery, heritage, proximity and language
But it loses out to competitors on the size of fish, reliability of catches, the perceived lower impact of fish farming and, in some cases, value for money.
An overwhelming 94% of angling tourists in Scotland want to fish for salmon but the biggest concern –even four years ago – was declining fish stocks.
Since then, salmon numbers have fallen even further, with last year being the worst on record for catches.
A quarter of respondents said it was unlikely they would return to Scotland to fish, and those keen to catch salmon were less likely to come back even for a general holiday.
The report stated: “Fishing tourists who fished for salmon were much less likely to think they had got very good value for money than tourists who fished for other fish.”
It also said: “A significant number commented that they perceived Scottish fish stocks to be falling steeply, particularly stocks of wild salmon and wild sea trout.”
Many anglers complained about the cost per fish being “excessive and rising” and also criticised Scottish Government policies.
Scandinavia was identified as Scotland’s chief competitor for fishing breaks by nearly six in 10 respondents.
One told researchers: “Salmon fishing in Scotland is on a downward slope. I am looking at other countries now for future trips.”
Another said: “I am thinking seriously of taking my tourist money to Canada next year because of the poor attitude of the Scottish Government.”
Scots angling dries up for travel firm
Learning to fish in the Highlands inspired Justin Maxwell Stuart to make a career from angling.
He set up his specialist travel firm, Where Wise Men Fish, in 2006 to offer bespoke fishing breaks.
But he is being inundated with inquiries from anglers looking to find an alternative to fishing in Scotland because of the dwindling salmon numbers.
The most popular destinations are now Norway, Iceland and Russia.
Mr Maxwell Stuart said: “I learned to fish on the River Lochy and it was the entire reason I got into fishing in the first place.
“It was very beautiful and used to have a great run of salmon.
“But they have suffered year after year from devastating poor returns and it has sucked a lot of life out of the river.
“My fishing time in Scotland has gone from 20 or more days a year to zero.
“I fish all over the world now.
“I did a report from Iceland with a video and nice pictures showing lots of fish.
“If I was to market a Scottish river I would have a rather depressing story and a video that was nice but without any action.
“I have been receiving emails on a regular basis over the past two to five years from people saying they have just had enough.
“They’re going there, paying the same money and just wasting their time.
“People want to go and catch some fish and they are just not doing that in Scotland.
“I could say that my business benefits but if the fishing isn’t good at home then people don’t get into the sport in the first place.
“It’s a vicious circle where everybody loses.
“It’s only the super-keen people who go on overseas fishing trips.
“The Russian rivers are popular because they are absolutely full.
“I would say that probably 50% of the people fishing there are UK-based.
“A lot of people go to Iceland. The fishing is expensive but it’s easy to get to.
“Looking at website statistics, Norway is by far the most looked-at destination.
“I had people who would much prefer to jump in their car and go to Scotland rather than faff around getting a visa to go to Russia.
“They would far rather go to Scotland and they still would if the fish were there.”