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
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.