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North tourism operators write again to First Minister calling for clarity on timescale for reopening businesses

By Alan Hendry

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David Whiteford, chairman of the North Highland Initiative, on the Caithness coastline. Picture: Alan Hendry
David Whiteford, chairman of the North Highland Initiative, on the Caithness coastline. Picture: Alan Hendry

Leading figures in tourism and hospitality across the north Highlands are stepping up their campaign for urgent action from Nicola Sturgeon to help businesses reopen this summer – and "avoid the collapse of our industry".

Their concerns are set out in a follow-up letter to the First Minister warning that jobs will be lost if tourism businesses in the area "miss the boat" and lose out on bookings in 2020.

Together those involved in the campaign represent more than 1200 full-time-equivalent seasonal and permanent jobs. They say tourism spend in the Highlands is worth more than £1 billion a year, creating more than 15,700 jobs.

In their initial letter to Ms Sturgeon, dated May 15, they warned: "Tourism and hospitality have been hit very hard by the lockdown, perhaps nowhere more so than in the Highlands, with its tiny, highly dispersed population, fragile communities and short season."

On Friday they wrote again, this time demanding clarity on timescales for reopening businesses of all types and workable protocols on social distancing for tourism and hospitality venues.

The plea to the First Minister has again been co-ordinated by David Whiteford, chairman of the North Highland Initiative, and Tanja Lister, from the Kylesku Hotel in Sutherland, backed by 75 tourism and hospitality business. The North Coast 500 organisation and North Highland Initiative are among the signatories

They state: "Our industry urgently needs clear timelines for reopening, for all business types. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism [Fergus Ewing] has indicated that a further announcement will take place on June 10. We would ask this date be brought forward, or at the very least that the Scottish Government indicate its plans to reopen for tourism this summer."

On social distancing protocols required for reopening, they say: "It is imperative that we actively evaluate progress that is made in other European countries that have already reopened their tourism industries, many of whom have elected to go for one metre social distancing."

Tanja Lister, of the Kylesku Hotel in Sutherland.
Tanja Lister, of the Kylesku Hotel in Sutherland.

The letter goes on: "We do still feel that the Highlands presents a special case which requires urgent attention. A recent study undertaken by the Federation of Small Businesses has shown that across the UK 41 per cent of small businesses are currently shut, a figure which rises to 53 per cent in Scotland and, concerningly, 64 per cent in the Highlands.

"This reflects the increased reliance upon tourism in our area. Shockingly, the survey also reveals that 36 per cent of these businesses fear they may never be able to reopen.

"It is clear that whilst our geographical location and situation is a positive factor in driving tourism demand, it presents a greater threat when faced with the fallout of this pandemic. Our season is short and rapidly diminishing and, due to our location, we are unlikely to be able to benefit from any recovery until wider travel is permitted once again."

The letter warns that a continuing message of "Scotland is closed" will risk bookings for the summer being transferred elsewhere. "There would be little point in reopening our businesses over the summer if we have missed the boat.

"Equally, businesses will need time to plan. It will take time to ensure our venues are adapted to suit new regulations, equipment (much of it already in short supply) will need to be ordered, staffing levels will need to be reviewed and time for training factored in.

"The more time we have to plan, the more we can ensure a readiness to reopen safely. As mentioned in our previous letter, we all recognise that these dates would be dependent upon progress against the virus, but having a tentative date is better than none at all.

"It is a fact that restaurants and hotels are rapidly reopening across Europe. The main tourism season, starting on June 15 as borders reopen, is being actively championed and fought for by the respective leaders of these countries. Whilst they are actively encouraging visitors, our silence is deafening.

"Assuming a reopening of our businesses will not happen before mid-July, we will have endured the longest lockdown. Indeed, if compared to a small country equally dependent upon its tourism industry, such as Austria, which has already reopened its restaurants and hotels, it will be over 50 per cent longer.

"Given the fear being felt within our communities, protecting health is, of course, of great importance but, given the huge stakes involved, we need to be sure we are evaluating these risks on an ongoing basis. Our longer lockdown gives us a unique opportunity to evaluate the progress being made elsewhere and we must seize this opportunity for all it’s worth if we wish to avoid the collapse of our industry and increased job losses."

Among those signing the letter are Trudy Morris, of Caithness Chamber of Commerce; the tourism promotional body Venture North; and the operators of Mackays Hotel (Wick), the Seaview Hotel (John O’Groats), the Northern Sands Hotel (Dunnet), the Ulbster Arms Hotel (Halkirk) and the Caithness Collection of three hotels (in Thurso, Wick and Castletown), along with many business owners from Sutherland and across the wider north Highlands.

North tourism groups urge First Minister to deliver lockdown-easing parity

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