MORE than half of Scotland’s licensed premises suffered a fall in sales over the key Christmas and New Year trading period, with no operators in rural areas reporting any growth at all.

The findings, which will trigger deep concern across the tourism and hospitality sectors, underline that Scotland’s pubs, hotels and restaurants are continuing to feel the effects of the country’s stricter drink driving laws, especially in rural communities.

The legal drink-drive limit was reduced in Scotland in late 2014. Since then the change has been credited with sparking a huge downturn in takings across the licensed trade as consumers have altered their drinking habits.

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READ MORE: Buzzworks director says firm will get bigger and pubs can't blame drink driving changes for sales slump

Government legislation was highlighted by the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) as its latest survey found 53 per cent of outlets said takings were down over Christmas and New Year. While 40 per cent of outlets reported “early signs of growth” after successive years of decline, SLTA chief executive Paul Waterson noted that this was from a “very low base”.

This week, a co-founder of Ayrshire hospitality group Buzzworks, whose outlets include Scotts in Troon, claimed some in the licensed trade “hide behind” factors such as the change in the drink-drive laws as an explanation for falling trade. Kenny Blair said a lack of investment, innovation and hard work were the real reasons some are being held back.

While Mr Waterson said he did not wish to comment on individual firms, he said the move to tighten the drink-drive regime had brought a “sea change” in consumer behaviour. “And it’s still weighing,” he said.

“If you look at the latest figures, although there is some growth it is from a very low base, rural businesses are showing no growth at all. It is very concerning. These more rural businesses are very often the only employer in their area, they are community hubs and are good for tourism.

“And what the figures don’t show is the amount of places that are opening part-time now. We know there are a significant amount of premises in rural areas which now only open when they know the business is definitely going to come in, and that is a result of wage pressure.”

READ MORE: Buzzworks director says firm will get bigger and pubs can't blame drink driving changes for sales slump

The latest SLTA survey, carried out with KPMG, covers more than 600 licensed retailers across Scotland, including pubs, hotels and late-night premises.

Asked if the poor weather over Christmas and New Year had influenced the results, Mr Waterson replied that licensed premises now need many factors to be going in their favour to trade well.

Amid suggestions in some quarters that operators need to invest to flourish, he added: “Not everyone has £500,000 or £600,000 to spend on premises to make them attractive. Sometimes that does not always work.”

He added: “There will always be some who say they have not been affected. [But] there are a lot of good operators, especially in rural areas, who have found their business taken away from them.”

On a more upbeat now, Mr Waterson said licensed outlets which grasp the craft beer and spirits boom stand to benefit.

READ MORE: Buzzworks director says firm will get bigger and pubs can't blame drink driving changes for sales slump

He highlighted opportunities in the digital economy, stressing the importance of offering “high speed Wi-Fi and mobile coverage in remote and rural communities.”