The Highlands needs to be treated as a special case for help as tourism operators emerge from lockdown, according to a leading industry figure.
It is hoped hospitality businesses can start to re-open next month as restrictions ease across the country.
But David Whiteford, chairman of the North Highland Initiative, the group behind the famous North Coast 500 road route, said remoter areas require more support as they have shorter seasons and are further from potential visitors.
He said: “We still have a shorter season than places elsewhere. Therefore, there is a shorter time for businesses to make the funds that they need to operate and make a surplus to re-invest. In that case, definitely, the Highlands is a special case.
“Absolutely the Highlands needs to be treated appropriately because of that seasonality and distance from the market place.”
He added: “There is a higher dependency on tourism in the Highlands than anywhere else and that’s why I would single out the region. We have such an amazing beautiful place, with so much to see and do, it is natural that we would have a higher dependence on tourism.”
At the height of the pandemic, communities in the Highlands posted ‘Stay Away’ messages to visitors amid fears that people could import Covid-19 into communities that were relatively free of the virus.
Mr Whiteford called for “more nuanced” messaging from the Government to ease anxieties after lockdown lifts and visitors can return.
“There has been a build up of anxiety and concern that the virus could be brought in by visitors. We saw signs up at the time, for obvious reasons, that were not welcoming to people as that’s what we were told. It was a lockdown.
“As you move to more remote areas where there has not been evidence of the virus in communities, then there is concern it could be brought in. So we need to be, as operators and leaders, aware of that and make sure that our communities are given confidence that we will be adhering to the letter of the sector guidelines that hopefully will be in our hands by June 18.
“The Scottish Government needs to fund a campaign to raise the mood of the nation when we do come out of the “bunker”, as it were.
“Given the reopening date, we believe that it is now essential that the Scottish Government adopts more nuanced messaging to ease anxieties across the country – especially in Highlands.”
Mr Whiteford said he hopes the government will also provide support for smaller firms who have suffered during the pandemic.
New figures from the Federation of Small Businesses show that 64% of Highlands and Islands and Argyll businesses have closed to comply with government guidance, compared to 53% across Scotland and 41% for the UK. 6% of those believe they will not reopen, and 36% fear that they won’t.
He called for flexibility in the guidelines, such as an urgent review of the two-metre social distancing guidelines in hospitality settings, and for the rules to be regularly reviewed.
In addition, he is seeking the removal of VAT for tourism-related businesses for a year and then set at half the current level for a further year.
“We are not asking for actions that are unachievable. But if we don’t receive this level of support I really do fear for further depopulation of the Highlands in the coming months”
David Richardson, the Federation of Small Businesses’ development manager, Highlands and Islands, said: “We must do everything possible to support our small local businesses, for they drive jobs and services across our communities, and without them, the Scottish economy will not recover and the outlook for the Highlands and Islands will be bleak indeed.”
FSB has called for a new tourism resilience fund and a new focus on collaboration and cooperation between business sectors.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We understand the exceptional and very challenging circumstances facing our tourism and hospitality sector.
“As such we have given an indicative date of 15 July for the reopening of tourism and hospitality, and will support the industry to prepare for this, including through the upcoming publication of guidance and the establishment of a Scottish tourism recovery task force which will help develop a domestic visitor marketing campaign.
“As the first minister has made absolutely clear, the health and scientific advice in Scotland at this stage is that we should not change the two metre rule.
“As distance is reduced, the risk of transmission is increased – and therefore we will continue to make judgments that are safe in terms of the suppression and transmission of the virus and that allow our economy to operate as close to normal as possible.”