Safe travels: What does tourism need to recover from COVID?
Walking down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile at this time of year normally involves a lot of maneuvering, a lot of dawdling and a lot of patience. But for the second year in a row, the global pandemic has left the city feeling near empty. The lack of international visitors, festivals and events has hit hard – and local businesses are feeling it.
At the start of June, signs began appearing in the windows of several shops along the Mile. “SNP has abandoned Scottish tourist retail”, they read. “Government assistance required to save jobs”.
The signs were deliberately inflammatory, but John Thorburn, the owner of Really Scottish, one of the shops on the street, explains it wasn’t about being anti-SNP. He says: “It says SNP purely because they’re the governing party. It could just quite as easily have said Green, Labour, Liberal and Conservative, but the SNP are the party in power in the city and in the country. The poster was designed to draw attention.”
Thorburn’s shop is one of few currently open on the Royal Mile. Others have opted to stay closed while footfall is low. Despite the lack of competition, he is still struggling for customers, often going days without a sale.
“Edinburgh is a tourist city for international tourists. That’s where the revenue comes from. The high rents here, some thousands and thousands of pounds a week, are justified by the high footfall of international tourists. But there have been none for 15 months, none. Somebody doesn’t come from Crieff for the day to Edinburgh and say, ‘Oh, I think I’ll buy a tartan scarf in memory of my visit to the capital.’ They don’t. They buy a beer and a burger, and maybe an ice cream.”
Indeed, the idea that domestic tourism this summer and last would offset the dip in international travel was never going to be a reality for places like Edinburgh. A survey by the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) pointed to a slow start to accommodation bookings over the summer across Scotland, with more than 40 per cent of hotels surveyed saying their occupancy rate was below 20 per cent.
However, Marc Crothall, STA CEO, tells Holyrood things have started to look a bit more positive for some destinations since the survey was conducted. He says: “We’ve got some reported growth, good growth, in sectors where they were concerned. Some of the hotels in particular have told us they’ve suddenly seen the phones ring and bookings in properties that are well-known establishments and properties in very appealing destinations. I’m not saying Scotland isn’t appealing the length and breadth of the country, but those that are more honeypot spots – the west coast, up in Inverness, North Coast 500, the likes of Gleneagles and Crieff Hydro and Peebles – all reporting reasonably good performance now in terms of bookings for a short-term window… The real concern though is still in the cities.”
And Crothall warns that after over a year of closures, restrictions and health and safety precautions being able to reopen now will not put every business into the black. “Yes, you can still be trading and have a reasonably good summer through the leisure lens – it’s still not going to be enough of a revenue stream to be able to protect [businesses]. Seventy per cent of visitor attractions around the country are open right now, but only 10 per cent of them are breaking even or making money.”
He adds: “The overarching need right now, given the constraints and there being no international [tourism], is that businesses need to trade. They need to be able to trade their way out of this as best as possible and life beyond level zero needs to come very quickly. We are, more and more people, vaccinated, double vaccinated, and we have to work our way around that to allow businesses to trade.”
The Scottish Government has committed to working with the sector on plans and pilot projects for reopening once safe to do so. It has also provided £25m to support the work of the Scottish Tourism Emergency Response Group (STERG). Plans include holiday and days out voucher schemes, destination marketing funds and investment in staff.
There is also recognition that businesses need more than a direct injection of cash. The government has commissioned VisitScotland and the enterprise agencies to develop a detailed and fully costed five-year recovery plan, which will cover broader areas like infrastructure and recruitment.
Duncan McConchie is one rural business owner who had benefited from the uplift in domestic tourism that came with the easing of lockdown, but he has struggled with staffing and transport issues. He is managing director of Laggan, a venue in Dumfries and Galloway. He says: “Rural areas are so busy. People are jumping on this opportunity to get away from towns and cities and come to the country, so our accommodation is well up.”
McConchie even successfully opened a restaurant on the site during lockdown. However, while the restaurant is doing well, he is struggling to recruit staff. He explains this is partly because of Brexit – hospitality and tourism are particularly reliant on migrant workers – and partly because many of these workers returned to their home countries at the start of the pandemic and have yet to come back.
He says: “Around us in Dumfries and Galloway, we have maybe four or five restaurants nearby that are not open because they cannot find staff too. These businesses, they can’t find chefs, can’t find front-of-house people, so they’re just not open. Staffing is such a big issue.
“And how do we overcome that? We need to look all the way back to schools and the perception of hospitality as an industry. It’s not perceived as a career of choice. Possibly that’s down to the parents of these kids … maybe it’s down to the schools not suggesting that hospitality’s a career, but it really is, and it’s a good career and, my god, it’s well paid. There’s a huge rebranding and relaunch of hospitality that needs to be done.”
His business has also suffered from a lack of investment in transport. Last November, McConchie made the tough decision to close down Laggan Outdoor Activity Centre, not because it was struggling to attract people but because it was struggling to stay below traffic restrictions tied into the centre’s planning permissions. He was told that in order to increase the maximum number of vehicles using the road to access the area, he would have to personally pay £400,000 to upgrade it.
“We attracted 20,000 people a year, which ended up being part of our downfall. We created lots of local employment, but it’s now all gone and all wrapped up. Likewise, another local activities centre has closed. Things that used to bring lots of people to this region as a cumulative offering are no longer open. It’s a real, real shame. They were putting burdens on a small rural business that were the same as IKEA and Tesco – and they can build that into their price, we can’t.”
Such issues were covered in Scotland’s tourism strategy, ‘Scotland Outlook 2030’, published in March 2020, just two weeks before the UK went into lockdown. Committing to making Scotland a “world leader in 21st century tourism”, that document set out four key areas: attracting and developing a skilled workforce, creating sustainable destinations, providing memorable experiences for visitors, and building business resilience.
Vicki Miller, VisitScotland’s marketing director, says that despite a tough 15 months, the tourism industry is “still very much signed up to the vision of the 2030 strategy”. She explains: “It’s just about the path to get there, it’s going to be a little bit different because we’re not [starting] from a position of growth, where we were in 2019.”
There is a concern that any major changes for businesses as the Scottish Government pursues this agenda could further harm an already struggling sector. However, complaints about irresponsible tourism which made headlines last summer as people headed to the Highlands make it clear why the aims of the pre-pandemic strategy must be at the forefront of the recovery strategy.
Miller says VisitScotland has put in place a visitor management framework to help resolve some of these issues. She says: “That will allow us to shape that future investment in new facilities, so not just temporary facilities that are dealing with particular problems but new facilities.
“But what we’ve also done as part of that is come together as a multi-agency group to look at coordinated education and marketing on how to enjoy the countryside responsibly so that you have a great experience.”
She also says the organisation is keen to promote areas which are “a little bit undiscovered” to both ease some of the pressure on the most popular areas and ensure more parts of Scotland benefit economically as tourism recovers.
Riddell Graham, VisitScotland’s industry and destination development director, adds: “Repositioning Scotland in the future as a responsible tourism destination has to be the way ahead for the industry now. The timing of that message and how we engage with industry is still a big job to do … it’s not about encouraging loads and loads and loads of new visitors to Scotland. It’s about encouraging the right visitors to have the right experience.”
Overall, the sector is confident tourism will come back and demand for holidays to Scotland will grow. However, it is clear there is a way to go to make sure Scotland is ready for that, both in terms of businesses making it through the pandemic and ensuring the infrastructure and facilities are in place.
Key to that is listening to the businesses involved, something STERG and VisitScotland have committed to doing. Graham says: “We have a call with all the sector organisations once a fortnight. Every week we have a long list of negative feedback that we’re giving to government to say, look, there are still concerns out there, and it’s right down to minute detail, but it’s really important to an individual business…
“Now, at the end of the day, government can only do what it can with the money it’s got, and it is then about targeting to make the biggest difference. But yes, we’re still receiving pleas from businesses who are really, really struggling. And I think that will continue to happen until all of this is, hopefully, eventually, over.”