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Tourism industry voices fears over impact of global issues such as coronavirus on Highland visitor numbers

By Neil MacPhail

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Covid-19, Brexit and a strong pound have sparked fears that the Highland tourist trade could take a hit.
Covid-19, Brexit and a strong pound have sparked fears that the Highland tourist trade could take a hit.

Industry leaders have warned coronavirus, continued Brexit uncertainty and the strong pound could all hit visitor numbers, while changes announced on immigration laws could spark a staffing crisis for the sector.

North tourism ambassador Willie Cameron, who is involved in Cobbs Group’s hotels and has built links with Chinese firm Nanhu Travel, said: “We have enjoyed a huge increase in Chinese visitor numbers in recent years, so the coronavirus is definitely going to hit us if it is not sorted out quickly.

“We have had no cancellations, but then we have had no bookings either. We would expect around 1200 over the season, but there are other hotels in the north that also major on the Chinese market.

Willie Cameron.
Willie Cameron.

“Thousands come each year. If the travel embargo is not lifted soon, then you can virtually forget the Far East market for this year. It will be a huge blow.”

He said the Clansman Hotel beside Loch Ness could normally expect to host at least 40 large groups of Chinese visitors throughout the season.

And he added that the postponement of the Ireland v Italy Six Nations rugby match next weekend could be “the nail in the coffin” for Italian visitors coming to Scotland.

He told the Courier: “I fear a domino effect could start hitting the number of visitors coming from Europe.”

Fraser Grieve, Highland director of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, said: “Forward bookings are obviously not what the hospitality and leisure business hoped for and it is challenging because there is so little clarity on what the outcome will be.

“Every day things are tightening up and making things difficult regarding travel and I suspect it will tighten up more in the future. It is not a good position to be in.”

Travel consultant Scott Murray, of Inverness Travel, said: “There is certainly an unease with passengers in travelling to the coronavirus-affected destinations.”

Tony Story.
Tony Story.

Tony Story, boss of the Kingsmills Group which has the city’s Kingsmills and Ness Bank hotels, agreed coronavirus was having an effect but added: “It is only part of the headwinds we are facing.

“We have had cancellations from Asia and just this week some from Italy. On top of coronavirus we also have Brexit, which is challenging.”

Mr Story said that concentrating on the home market was not the whole answer. “Even if they came in equal numbers, I don’t think they would replace the spend by overseas visitors,” he said.

The Highlands has welcomed around 6000 Chinese tourists a year on average and VisitScotland statistics for 2018 show they spent an average of £154 per day compared with the £63 average daily spend of other overseas visitors.

Mr Story added that a downturn in business had been experienced in the city not related to coronavirus, and while there was no doubt the weather had had an effect, he reckoned fears over the impact of Brexit was partly responsible. He also expressed concern over the “ludicrous planning situation” where approval for 1400 more bedrooms was pending or granted for the city that had a stock of 1000 rooms already.

But despite the challenges, he was confident Kingsmills Group was in a position to adapt and weather the challenges.

On plans for a new points-based immigration system from 2021, Mr Cameron said: “It is absolutely serious – horrendous – regarding staffing. There are Polish and other eastern Europeans who have been here 10-15 years who are heading home and taking their skills with them.”

Emmanuel Moine, chairman of Inverness Hotels Association, said: “The new immigration rules are a big issue because about 50 per cent of our staff are from Europe and most of them earn below £22,000.

“It is a big issue and a big threat. With many new hotels coming to Inverness, where are they going to find the workers?”

Inverness-based economist Tony Mackay said the main reason for the tourism boom was the fall in the value of the pound following the Brexit vote.

“Since the general election the pound has strengthened significantly,” he added. “That suggests a slowdown in tourism in 2020.”

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