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Island tourism losing millions of pounds due to uncertainty over future travel restrictions

Welcome to Harris sign
Welcome to Harris sign

Island tourism operators have lost millions of pounds of business and say they are fighting for survival after being “excluded” from Scottish Government plans to ease lockdown restrictions.

While it is planned to lift restrictions on journeys in mainland Scotland on April 26, it is still unclear on how the changes will affect the islands.

Tourism industry leaders say the uncertainty has already led to bookings being cancelled, with holidaymakers shifting their visits to the mainland.

The situation has also caused problems for restaurants and cafes trying to recruit staff.

Tourist bodies in the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, Argyll and the islands and Arran are jointly calling for clarity and to end the “discrimination”, saying up to a third of businesses are unlikely to survive an extension to the ban on visitors.

They say the government is consulting on alternative proposals that would allow islanders more freedom internally, but would prevent 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, by our young folk who are just as keen as their mainland peers to spread their wings after an extended lockdown, and by our local authorities who can see the damage that is being done by this two-tier approach.”

The groups say by acting quickly, the government can stop the situation becoming even worse, but are worried the upcoming Holyrood election is dominating minds.

A statement, issued by the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA), was drafted by Rob McKinnon, chief executive of Outer Hebrides Tourism, and was co-signed by Argyll & The Isles Tourism Co-operative, VisitArran and Destination Orkney.

£2m lost in cancellations

Mr McKinnon said more than £2 million has been lost in cancellations in his area alone recently: “We are seeking a level playing field. We do not understand what the issues are that require us to be treated differently.

Rob Mckinnon, chief executive of member-group Outer Hebrides Tourism.

“Why are islands being selected when some of the smaller communities north of Inverness are in the same situation? Should we put up roadblocks on the A9 to stop people travelling?

He said businesses re-opened safely last year during the last lockdown easing, and the vaccine roll-out has also now provided extra reassurance.

“From an industry perspective it will be the same procedures as last year, but we’re being told that doesn’t work this year.

“We’re confused to be honest. The way things are being rolled out is causing real damage at a time when businesses have been struggling for a while and many of them are on the edge.”

STA chief executive Marc Crothall said it is vital island communities are able to receive the same economic stimulus as the rest of the country.

Island businesses will lose trade

“If businesses in our islands can’t follow the same approach as the mainland, the impact will be more severe than may be understood currently. Businesses will lose trade to mainland businesses, people will choose to visit other destinations leading quickly to business failure, significant unemployment and an economic and social crisis within our island communities.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We want travel to get back to normal as soon as it is safely possible, but as the First Minister has set out we must move very carefully to ensure continued suppression of the virus.

“If we open up too much, too quickly then we risk a resurgence of the virus. We must also do this in a way that carries most support from island residents and communities and will give them confidence and reassurance that it is safe for people to visit our islands and also for islanders to visit the mainland.

“While we are engaging with island authorities, communities and businesses to better understand their views, keeping people safe remains key and we must all continue to follow expert public health advice.”

This week tourism businesses in Skye said they need a minimum of a 20-week season after restrictions ease just to survive.

Everyone else has been given some hope, but we haven’t

Rhoda Campbell and her husband Neil run the award-winning, five-star Blue Reef Cottages business on Harris.

Mrs Campbell, vice chair (North) & director of Outer Hebrides Tourism’s industry council, said  businesses across the islands have seen bookings cancelled for April and are holding bookings for May in the hope travel is permitted to the islands.

“I know many businesses in the islands that have had more cancellations than we’ve had, with people opting to go to mainland Scotland instead. It has had a considerable impact on local businesses.

Blue Reef cottages

“The problem is not knowing. If consultation was going to take place, why did it not happen prior to March 16, when the Scottish Government made an announcement on an opening date for the whole of Scotland? The whole of the UK was given a potential date to open, we were told that the islands were being consulted and have been in limbo ever since.

“The problem is the continued uncertainty. Everyone else has been given some hope with a potential return date, but we, in the islands, haven’t and we’re sitting here waiting for someone in government to make a positive decision that will hopefully allow us to open at the end of April along with others in Scotland.”

She said changes from April 26 could mean families not being able to visit or allow residents to leave the islands “while on the mainland you will be able to travel freely from region to region”.

“No one wants to open at the expense of anyone’s health. But if we can’t open when there are zero cases, and close to 80% of the population of the Western Isles have been vaccinated, when can we open?”