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Staycation boom for the Highlands once coronavirus lockdown is lifted?

By Val Sweeney

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Bught Caravan Park and Campsite in Inverness could see healthy bookings if and when lockdown holidaying restrictions are lifted.
Bught Caravan Park and Campsite in Inverness could see healthy bookings if and when lockdown holidaying restrictions are lifted.

There is a rare bit of good news for the Highlands’ tourist industry, with some experts expressing cautious optimism the region could benefit from a rise in staycation bookings.

With the prospects of summer holidays abroad all but disappearing, beleaguered local tourism businesses could get the chance to cash in.

The news came as reports indicate more than half of Scots want to holiday in the Highlands this year.

EasyJet also announced this week that domestic flights in and out of Inverness Airport are among those it plans to reinstate from June 15, with passengers and crew required to wear face coverings.

This would be a huge boost for one of the region’s most important business sectors.

Although some hospitality leaders still fear this season will be a write-off, others see tentative signs of hope.

Self-catering facilities and campsites are expected to be the first to see an upsurge in interest, although hotels, guesthouses and other hospitality businesses could lag behind due to social-distancing difficulties.

Mike Spencer-Nairn, owner of an award-winning 10 luxury cabin complex near Beauly, has noticed a spike in inquiries recently.

He said the majority of new bookings were for this autumn or next year, but there was still optimism among visitors that the restrictions will have eased to enable a break later this summer.

“Obviously, none of us know how it is going to play out,” he said. “It will depend on specific advice.’’

He is “quietly confident” he might be able to reopen in July, but acknowledged that a possible economic recession could impact on people’s holiday plans.

Elaine Pope and Iain Mackintosh, the owners of Ardtower Caravan Park in Culloden Road, also remain optimistic.

Miss Pope said between 60 and 70 per cent of visits were repeat business and some customers were poised to return as soon as the site reopens.

“From a mental health point of view, people will need to get away from their homes and have a break, but it will be very challenging,” she said.

Brian MacDonald, the manager of Bught Park Caravan Park and Campsite in Inverness, said the site has bookings for August and September, but he was doubtful of opening this year.

“The campsite is a mass gathering area, so there is no way we can open until the government says,” he said. “It is a bit of a nightmare, but you just have to get on with it.”

Daniel Mackenzie-Winters, chairman of the Inverness Bed and Breakfast Association, said any reopening needed to be responsible and sustainable.

“We recognise it’s a delicate balance between health and the economy,” he said. “The hospitality of the Highlands is well known so we don’t want to compromise this in any way.”

Last week sector leaders from across the north Highlands signed an open letter to the First Minister demanding action to support the industry up to Easter next year, saying that lockdown lasting until autumn could be “ruinous”.

Chris Taylor, VisitScotland’s regional leadership director, said it was working on a recovery plan to help the industry.

“We expect the first stage of the recovery to focus around domestic tourism, with people travelling to locations close to home,” he said. “But we are also gathering data and marketing intelligence from international markets to be able to gauge where we focus our efforts once international travel restrictions are lifted.

“As the lockdown measures ease, we will continue to support businesses and help the tourism industry become an economic and social powerhouse again; this is at the heart of everything we do.”

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