Highland tourism during covid-19

By Alex Manley

In the long-gone days of a world before COVID-19, the months of June-August would commonly be seen as the optimal time to jet-set off to far flung destinations all over the world for reasons ranging from holidays, summer work such as camp counselling, international volunteering opportunities, and then some. However, with a pandemic circling viciously around much of the world most of these plans have since been scuppered, reducing the summer schedules of many to nothing but groundhog days of hearing the same old doom and gloom regarding a virus which has killed just over 700,000 people worldwide whilst showing no signs of stopping. But with lockdown now beginning to ease within Britain, people are able to travel again. Whilst some are travelling abroad as a result of the quarantine free air bridges, the abrupt removal of the air bridge between the UK and Spain led many tourists to reconsider plans of travelling abroad this summer and instead opt for a staycation. Something that’s been music to the ears of an industry worth £1.2 billion: The Highlands and Islands tourism industry. But is the music as sweet however for the Highland and Island locals?

In what has been branded the year of the staycation, signs are pointing towards a post-lockdown boom within the Highlands and Islands. The BBC reported that many Highland accommodations are currently fully booked until October, whilst a student residing in a Highland town of 1500 locals reported that on the day travel was allowed again up to 800 tourists came and temporarily added to this population. Clear signs that an important industry is rising back up. 

Elsewhere, the Island of Eigg’s population have asked tourists not visit until September at the earliest in order to protect vulnerable residents. Opting out of an anticipated post-lockdown travel boom will likely sacrifice large portions of the local economy, but it appears to be a sacrifice they’re willing make to protect local lives. With infection clusters now popping up all over the country, notably Aberdeen, indicating that the virus is not yet over: it is likely that more communities will demand the discouragement of tourism in fear of a second wave that could diminish entire towns. 

Preventing the highly feared and anticipated second wave will greatly hinge upon the compliance of guidelines amongst tourists. In the early months of lockdown, a large majority abided with the lockdown rules when all forms of unessential travel were banned. But notable cases such as Catherine Calderwood’s weekend trip to Earlsferry left her with her tail tucked between her legs as she flaunted her own advice of not going to second homes. Elsewhere, Neil Gaiman caused a furore in May when he travelled 11,000 miles from New Zealand to the Island of Skye. It certainly wasn’t a good omen to the island that this revelation came about amidst an outbreak in the Portree based ‘Home Farm’ care home killing 10 residents. However as non-essential travel comes back into the fore, the lines between right and wrong become less defined than the clear messaging of the outright travel ban: meaning some tourists may step out of line due to a difference in interpreting the guidelines. One Skye based student reported a large congregation at Staffin beach, adding that rubbish and human faeces were left on the ground by tourists: a trend also seen in areas such as the Cairngorms and Lochaber. Pandemic or not, leaving behind litter and faecal deposits shows complete disregard to the local environment and will only add to the sense of fear towards tourists from locals in this COVID-era. 

One group pining for the return of tourists are local businesses and councils, who rely on income from tourism. For example, an Inverness car park which previously made £200,000 per month saw earnings plummet to just £75 in April, owing to lockdown restrictions and lack of tourism. The importance of bringing back tourist football is reflected through businesses making changes to their premises to cater for the policy of social distancing. One notable example being the Skye based Portree Hotel whose construction of an outside seating area containing eight ‘greenhouse’ structures on what was once a taxi rank without prior permission received a degree of objections. However, such an action can be defended in an era where 25% of Highland and Island businesses fear for their long-term sustainability. But a recent warning to Highland bars from government health officers concerning complaints over a lack of COVID control measures in some pubs cannot be defended. 

Overall, it is clear that the return of tourism is crucial in these times of recession. Tourists should however respect the locals wishes of safety, whilst locals should avoid treating tourists with disdain. When the pandemic tunnel is cleared: and normal tourism resumes COVID era tourists may look to return to the Scottish tourist sites that they’ve visited when all is normal, but it’ll be unlikely that they’ll do so if they perceive the locals as provocative. For now, however, the best we can do is work in unison to keep the virus at bay whilst supporting a troubled economy.