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Highland tourism sector demands action from First Minister to protect the industry and save jobs during the coronavirus pandemic

By Gregor White

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Tourism leaders want to see action to protect the industry in the Highlands.
Tourism leaders want to see action to protect the industry in the Highlands.

Dozens of tourism and hospitality business leaders from across the north Highlands have signed an open letter to the First Minister demanding action to support the industry.

The Inverness Hotels Association are among 75 signatories to the letter that also includes the North Coast 500 organisation and North Highland Initiative.

Together the signatories say they represent more than 1200 full time equivalent seasonal and permanent jobs and that tourism spend in the Highlands is worth more than £1 billion a year – more than 10 per cent of business share – creating more than 15,700 jobs.

In their letter they tell the First Minister: "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.

"However, we recognise that the long-term recovery of this vitally important industry is only one consideration.

"Many of our communities have largely avoided the virus to date, and we are very aware that within these communities there are many who regard a wholesale reopening to visitors from out with the area as a dangerous and short-sighted move.

"This anxiety is understandable given our experiences over the last few months and the focussed message issued by our politicians.

"The reopening must, therefore, be handled with care to take this feeling into account. Otherwise we risk opening the way for community divisions, and potentially damaging press coverage that will risk the survival of the famous ‘Highland Welcome’ for which we are known around the world.

"There is a view that we must choose between businesses and the economy on the one hand and community health on the other.

"This is absolutely not the case. We are all in this together. Businesses, their owners and employees are just as much part of these communities as everyone else, and we too have friends and family here.

"In every sense, many have our entire lives here, and the safety of our employees, our communities and our guests is paramount.

"However, it is now time to widen the discussion from the short-term impact of this virus to the medium- and long-term consequences of extended lockdowns.

"Short term protection, whilst vital, cannot be the sole factor in determining our policies going forward.

"The long-term health impacts caused by widespread unemployment, increased poverty and deterioration of mental health may be less tangible and difficult to quantify but are nonetheless real.

"As soon as it is safe to do so, we need our businesses to open in alignment with the rest of Scotland, ideally the rest of the UK.

"The ‘stay at home’ message from government has been very effective thus far, with a very high proportion of the rules being upheld.

"There have been calls to extend the lockdown in the Highlands for longer, beyond the rest of Scotland or UK.

"Given the timing and realities of our situation, this could be ruinous. If our businesses cannot open until the autumn then, given the short season, it will be less viable for those that are seasonal to reopen until next year, meaning many will have been shut for 18 months.

"The difference between re-opening in July or September could likely be the determining factor in the survival of our industry, its suppliers and producers here."

They conclude: "The absolute imperative is to protect lives from the immediate danger of the virus. Once this threat recedes, we would urge the Scottish Government to:

• Ensure our ministers take a positive lead to help allay the understandable anxieties within our communities about the prospect of tourists returning once more.

• To balance both the short- and long-term impacts when evaluating the risks. Unless there is clear scientific evidence to suggest otherwise, to unlock the Highlands in alignment with the rest of Scotland, ideally the rest of the UK.

• Set out a clear, comprehensive and transparent plan including timelines. We all recognise that these are dependent upon the progress of the virus, but this will help businesses to start planning and narrow our working assumptions.

• Avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach to our diverse industry and ongoing financial support that recognizes the difficulty of bridging the winter fallow period. "

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