Uncertainty is now gripping the islands’ tourist industry as the slow pace towards reduced Covid-19 restrictions continues in Scotland.
Some are arguing that the rate of reopening the Scottish islands’ tourism industry in comparison to the mainland is a critical factor in the survival of hundreds of businesses
Meanwhile many small ventures, with limited physical space, are remaining completely closed.
For instance, all the Gatliff Trust Hostels (Berneray, Howmore, and Rhenigidale) remain closed. They explain: “Our buildings are small. So we cannot open until we meet the social distancing requirements. A date will be announced on our website as soon as possible.”
And the Mountain Bothies Association have the same problem. They say: “MBA maintained bothies in Scotland, England and Wales should not be used at present except in an emergency. This is because Covid-19 precautions such as social distancing, regular sanitising and wearing of face coverings might not be practised by some visitors which would put other people at risk irrespective of reducing rates of infection.
MBA Chairman Simon Birch said:” There is…no firm information about when other restrictions that currently apply in the bothy situation- groups meeting indoors, social distancing, personal hygiene requirements etc- might be eased. So, for the moment, the situation remains the same and regrettably therefore we have to repeat our advice that bothies should not be used.
“We fully understand that this will be disappointing news for many bothy users. However, I should like to reassure them that we are closely monitoring Government announcements about further easing of restrictions throughout Great Britain."
Similarly on Iona, the local community say: “It is expected that travel restrictions within mainland Scotland will be lifted on 26th April. As yet no decision has been announced as to whether travel restrictions between islands and the mainland will be lifted on the same date. There is currently a Scottish Government consultation taking place on this issue.” This means, for instance, that group from a Lewis church planning a visit to Iona in July still cannot tell whether they will be able to go or not.
And tourism leaders say that a continued curb on visitors that is “out of kilter” with the rest of the country would be devastating to the islands’ economy. The lack of an announcement relating to an opening date for tourism businesses on the islands has had the effect of “triggering a wave of cancellations from visitors seeking certainty who have reluctantly opted for alternative holidays on the Scottish mainland,” it is claimed.
Businesses have been trying, in correspondence with the Scottish Government, to pin down a date to pencil in. The response was there is “no definitive timescale or specific dates”.
Rob McKinnon, chief executive of Outer Hebrides Tourism, said: “The Government has commenced a consultation to gather opinions on alternative proposals that would allow islanders to have more freedom internally, but critically would ban non-essential travel between the mainland and the islands.
“As well as tourism, this has been met with dismay by many islanders who are desperate to be reunited with relatives on the mainland.”
Tourism businesses from across the islands agreed to collectively “demand a level playing field from the Scottish Government on arrangements to end Scotland’s lockdown”, he said, adding: “The approach taken has already caused unnecessary confusion and millions of pounds of damage. By acting quickly, the Government can stop the situation becoming even worse.”
Meanwhile, in a survey on the isle of Skye by the SkyeConnect organisation, of businesses from the hotel, self-catering, B&B, campsite, restaurant, arts and crafts, visitor attraction and outdoor activity sectors, almost 70% of those who took part in the survey said they need a minimum of a 20-week season to survive. Given that it’s generally seen as ending in October, the season would have to start in early June, at least.
The survey also reveals that even with a good summer season, some sectors such as hotels, restaurants, outdoor activities and visitor attractions will need the Furlough Scheme extended through the winter if they are to avoid letting some staff go.
However, there did appear to be some confidence that sufficient holidaymakers will visit Skye this year with 56% of respondents said they were confident of being able to generate sufficient income to justify re-opening.
Chair of SkyeConnect, Dave Till, said: “Businesses are starting to recruit staff and invest in being able to offer a Covid-safe environment for visitors. We sincerely hope there will be no more lockdowns.
“Our industry needs at least five months of good trading conditions, just to survive. Beyond that, it is clear that Government support will still be required through the winter months, otherwise we are likely to see a rise in unemployment.
“SkyeConnect will use the data from this survey to lobby the Government after the election to ensure our fragile island economy and its hundreds of small, family-run businesses get the support they need as we all navigate our way along the long road of recovery out of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Meanwhile in Shetland, the first blast of the foghorn at Sumburgh Head in more than a year-and-a-half signalled the reopening of the lighthouse visitor centre on Saturday April 3.