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Return of tourists raises hopes that Highland season will not be a washout after all following Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown

By Val Sweeney

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Visitors at Urquhart Castle (file image).
Visitors at Urquhart Castle (file image).

FEARS this year’s tourism season would be a write-off have been replaced by a renewed sense of optimism.

Slowly but surely, visitors have been returning to the area since hospitality businesses were allowed to reopen just over a week ago.

Tourism is one of the region’s key industries and has been hit hard by the impact of coronavirus with redundancies, hotel closures and tour operators going out of business.

But it is not all doom and gloom as business is now picking up for hotels, self-catering sites and bars and restaurants who benefit from local support as well as a regular influx of tourists.

It has been the kick-start the Inverness – and wider Highland – economy has needed after three months in lockdown.

“We are feeling very positive following reopening,” said Colin Harrison, operations director at Torvean Caravan Park, which was fully booked for the first weekend it reopened.

“Inverness and the Highlands is an integral part of the Scottish tourism industry. We certainly expect to see more visitors from the UK this year. Many people are hesitant about travelling abroad, therefore we are the perfect place to visit.”

Business is also ramping up at Bught Caravan Park and Campsite in Inverness.

“It is lovely to see motor homes and caravans back on the road,” co-owner Pauline MacDonald said. “People are slowly starting to come back.”

The Cobbs group opened its Loch Ness Drumnadrochit Hotel on July 15 and will reopen rooms at the Clansman Hotel, Loch Ness Country House Hotel and Loch Ness Lodge on August 1. Director Willie Cameron expects to have a clearer idea of how business is doing next month.

“We are encouraged but we are not over the moon – it is a standing start,” he said. “It is not the staycation boom we anticipated, we will know more in the first two weeks in August. But our cup is more than half full and we have to be realistic.”

Although it may be a tentative return and operators have implemented strict measures to ensure social distancing, it heralds a turnaround which may be boosted by Travelodge research published yesterday showing the Highlands as the top staycation destination for holidaying Scots this summer.

Bunchrew Caravan Park manager Max Mure said it had guests from Fife, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

“It is good to see people back,” he said. “I think people are happy to come here and stand in the fresh air.”

Emmanuel Moine, chairman of the Inverness Hotels Association, said hotels across the city were generally operating at about 30 per cent occupancy since reopening.

“It isn’t crazy, but we can see a difference already,” he said. “Inverness is a great tourist destination and rooms are still three times cheaper than last year.”

Zsolt Jakri, manager of the city’s Pentahotel, said that by the end of the month it would be operating at 50 per cent occupancy. “I don’t think we are going to recover fully this year, but at least people are travelling,” he said.

“It would be good to get the international visitors back and I am sure they are going to come back at some point.”

With the reopening of the Caledonian Canal yesterday, Caley Cruisers director Audrey Hogan is looking forward to welcoming her first customers from Monday.

“Demand is quite high,” she said. “Obviously the Highlands are being seen as a nice, safe destination and with the boats, they have minimal contact with anybody else as well, so it’s an attractive option.”

Inverness-based economist Tony Mackay said some people were still cautious of coronavirus.

“From my discussions, most of the current visitors are from elsewhere in Scotland, particularly Glasgow and Edinburgh,” he said. “There have been fewer people from England than expected and very few from overseas.

“It is difficult to predict what will happen during the rest of 2020, but I do not expect a large increase in visitor numbers."

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