The Press and Journal (Inverness, Highlands, and Islands)

North tourism’ s moun­tain to climb to­wards re­open­ing

● As lock­down be­gins to ease, Susy Ma­cAulay looks at the var­i­ous chal­lenges fac­ing the vi­tal tourism sec­tor in the High­lands and is­lands

- Travel · United Kingdom · Caithness · Scottish Government · Durness · Struan

Re­open­ing tourism in the High­lands this sum­mer has the feel of run­ning up all 282 Mun­ros with­out a pause and then adding on Ever­est for good mea­sure. Chal­leng­ing, com­plex, un­pre­dictable and un­der­pinned by the fear it could all go hor­ri­bly and fa­tally wrong.

In a pre-Covid world, the High­lands re­ceived ap­prox­i­mately four mil­lion overnight vis­i­tors a year, and an­other two mil­lion day vis­i­tors, in­clud­ing cruise ship pas­sen­gers.

No one doubts the im­por­tance of tourism to the re­gion, but Covid-19 has rad­i­cally changed the face of High­land hos­pi­tal­ity.

What is on of­fer will not be the same as be­fore. Some busi­nesses will not re­open this year, while oth­ers will but with re­duced ca­pac­ity, so­cial dis­tanc­ing and long lists of rules.

And the ques­tions be­ing asked in­clude: Will peo­ple still come? Will they still en­joy it with re­duced ameni­ties? And, above all, will they still re­ceive that world-fa­mous High­land wel­come?

Suther­land coun­cil­lor Hugh Mor­ri­son says the re­open­ing will be chal­leng­ing for every­one – trade and vis­i­tors alike.

He runs the Smoo Cave Ho­tel in Dur­ness, on the pop­u­lar North Coast 500 route.

“Here in Dur­ness we feel July 15 is too early, and we’ve all agreed we won’t open un­til we are ready, which could be the end of July,” he said.

“With­out doubt the tra­di­tional re­laxed High­land wel­come will have to change as peo­ple ad­just to vis­i­tors from all parts of the UK po­ten­tially bring­ing the virus with them.”

At Sango Sands Oa­sis camp­site, bar and restau­rant in Dur­ness, owner James Keith says his head is in tur­moil with the var­i­ous dilem­mas posed by coro­n­avirus.

“We would only be able to open our self-con­tained units as we couldn’t have peo­ple stand­ing guard at the toi­let blocks ready to clean af­ter each use,” he said.

“You’ve no idea who the campers are, where they’ve been and what fa­cil­i­ties they’ve used...”

“Peo­ple are com­ing al­ready and if we don’t cater for them they will wild camp in lay­bys, at beaches or by ceme­ter­ies and leave their waste ev­ery­where.

“We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

NC500 vis­i­tors – more than 30,000 a year pre-Covid – flock to marvel at the vast skies and land­scapes of Caith­ness, but in that frag­ile county, busi­nesses are still in shock at the pro­posed July 15 open­ing, says Coun­cil­lor Struan Mackie.

“A lot of peo­ple had writ­ten the sea­son off and are now on the back foot,” he said.

“I’ve asked the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment to im­ple­ment a com­plete ban on wild camp­ing.

“You’ve no idea who the campers are, where they’ve been and what fa­cil­i­ties they’ve used, which means that track and trace is use­less.”

Mr Mackie has also asked the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment to pro­mote strongly the need for vis­i­tors to book ahead – a view echoed by tourism body SkyeCon­nect.

Pro­ject man­ager Alis­tair Dan­ter said: “The re­duc­tion in ca­pac­ity makes it more im­por­tant than ever that peo­ple wish­ing to visit Skye – when they are al­lowed to do so – make sure they have se­cured a book­ing in ad­vance.

“There is un­der­stand­able con­cern on the is­land about the re­open­ing of tourism.

“This will be height­ened if there is an in­flux of camper­vans with no book­ings and nowhere to ser­vice their ve­hi­cles.”

Trudy Mor­ris, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Caith­ness Cham­ber of Com­merce, said some busi­nesses were pre­pared to re­open but oth­ers were ask­ing if it is worth it.

“As soon as you re­open there are costs, like bring­ing peo­ple off fur­lough,” she said. “You need money in the pipe­line.” But what­ever the fears and pres­sures caused by the sit­u­a­tion, tourism must restart, says David Richard­son of the Fed­er­a­tion of Small Busi­nesses, High­lands and is­lands.

“Tourism busi­nesses recog­nise the sea­son is rapidly pass­ing and that, as soon as the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment gives the green light, they must get back to work be­fore the sea­son and their busi­nesses die,” he said.

 ?? Pho­to­graph by Sandy McCook ??
Pho­to­graph by Sandy McCook
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