Coronavirus: Urgent action crucial to save Highlands and islands businesses

Timing of reopening could be determining factor in survival of seasonal outlets

David Whiteford, chair of the North Highland Initiative, and Tanja Lister from The Kylesku Hotel in Sutherland

A CLEAR, comprehensive and transparent plan with timelines and ongoing support to bridge the winter months are crucial to the survival of hospitality businesses in the Highlands and islands.

That’s the message from 75 operators from across the north Highlands, North Coast 500 route, Argyll and the Isle of Skye who have written to first minister Nicola Sturgeon calling for “immediate action and support” to protect the industry and save jobs.

The group, which is led by David Whiteford, chair of the North Highland Initiative, and Tanja Lister from The Kylesku Hotel in Sutherland (pictured), has urged the Scottish Government to provide “ongoing financial support that recognizes the difficulty of bridging the winter fallow period”.

“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,” it said.

“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. 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 reopening in July or September could likely be the determining factor in the survival of our industry, its suppliers and producers here.

“As we learn more about the current nature of customer demand and the appetite for a ‘staycation’, our industry will need continued financial support from the government whilst we navigate the short to medium term. Ongoing furlough, with phasing, may need to be reviewed again as we progress. Access to grants and loans will be key as we move into 2021.”

The group, which represents over 1200 full time equivalent seasonal and permanent jobs, has also urged ministers to take a “positive lead to help allay the understandable anxieties within our communities about the prospect of tourists returning”; and it said businesses can play their part, suggesting the implementation of a nationwide Covid Quality Assurance Scheme, which it said could help hospitality businesses communicate the “stringent measures being put in place to mitigate the risk of transmission”.

“Given the nature of our region, we firmly believe the Highlands will once more become a much sought-after holiday destination,” says the letter.

“In fact, demand might ultimately grow above previous levels.

“However, the challenge ahead for many of us is to survive the short to medium term.”