The Highland Wildlife Park is on the “road to recovery” after re-opening to visitors today following the easing of lockdown restrictions.
The park saw a quiet return to business with 136 people who had to book in advance going through the gates, while current travel guidance is for people to stay within around five miles of home.
But it has encouraged the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), which operates the park and Edinburgh Zoo, as it feared both sites were at risk due to a prolonged closure during the pandemic.
The RZSS had to borrow £5 million since lockdown forced the closure of both facilities and cut off their income streams.
fWith a monthly bill of almost £700,000 to keep both sites going, the charity had warned it needed to re-open the facilities to avoid a “financially disastrous” situation.
It said that by this time next year, RZSS will have to pay £1 million in debt repayment, money that would normally go towards improvements at the parks and conservation projects.
RZSS chief executive David Field said: “Until the travel restriction is lifted we know there is going be much less demand, but we are delighted to be open.
“We do feel we have started the road to recovery today. We have quite a way to go because we have to find an additional £5m to cover all the loans we have had to take, so it’s this time next year when we are going to be really concerned because we have to start paying back those loans.
“But the bookings we’ve had and going forward are looking strong. We will be upping the numbers and we do feel that there is a potential demand for getting out.
“I sense that we might get a little bit of an extension to the tourist season.”
To prepare for re-opening, a wide range of safety measures have been put in place at the wildlife park.
The park has limited visitor numbers with advanced online booking required, there has been frequent cleaning in high contact areas and additional hygiene precautions, as well as extra handwashing and hand sanitiser stations around the park.
One-way routes have been introduced in some areas so different households can stay 2m apart, all keeper talks have been postponed to avoid crowds, visitors are being encouraged to wear masks and the park cafes are opening only for takeaway services with card payments.
Donations top £400,000 to help park and zoo
During the closure, the RZSS has received more than £400,000 in donations from supporters.
Mr Field said money is still coming in, with £4,000-£5,000 received at the weekend. He said: “Every £1 counts for us at his point because the more funds and income we can generate now, the less borrowings we have to have.
“If we can reduce our borrowing in total by the end of the year then it means we can start reinvesting in the park, the zoo and our conservation programmes.”
He said he is confident a current £500,000 shortfall in a flagship breeding facility for the endangered wildcat can be found.
“I just feel we can get that money over the years because over these past three months we have had so much support for the park, the zoo and the zoological society itself.
“It’s almost as if people have fallen in love again with the park and the zoo. It’s reignited a real passion for what they can offer as well as the projects that we do.
“I think the love that has been shown for the Highland Wildlife Park is just going to grow and I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of people.”