The Scottish Government is facing calls to stump up compensation cash to firms impacted by its travel ban to Manchester after budget airline EasyJet and the world’s tallest cruise ship pulled their services from Aberdeen.
EasyJet announced on Wednesday it has scrapped a new route between Aberdeen and Manchester less than a week after it was first announced, as a direct response to travel restrictions introduced between Scotland and the English city.
The news, which was described as “hugely disappointing” by bosses at Aberdeen Airport, came as representatives of the travel industry across Scotland prepared to head to Holyrood on Thursday to call for more support for the sector.
Ministers placed restrictions on travel from Scotland to Manchester and Salford because of a rising number of coronavirus infections but have faced criticism because Dundee currently has an even higher case rate but is not subject to such measures.
A rift between Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and Nicola Sturgeon over the issue is reported to have escalated further on Wednesday night when a slanging match erupted during an acrimonious call between the pair.
However, the first minister could face issues closer to home amid growing calls for the Scottish Government to provide greater support for Scotland’s travel sector.
More than 250 members of the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA) and their associates, including airline staff, tour operators, pilots, and their families, protested outside Holyrood on Thursday as part of a UK-wide Travel Day of Action.
The group’s demands include sectoral support for travel, clarity over the data being used to ground the industry, a plan for a safe return to international travel and a low-cost, easy-to-access testing regime.
However, in a further blow to the sector and firms across the north-east, operators of the world’s tallest cruise ship, the Golden Horizon, has cancelled all of its planned cruises to Scotland this summer, including a visit to Aberdeen in July.
It will now not return to UK waters until late 2023 as it becomes the latest cruise ship company to cancel calls to ports in the north-east.
In a letter sent to all North East MSPs on Monday, Visit Aberdeenshire chief executive Chris Foy said move is a “direct response to the position taken by the Scottish Government that provides no date for when domestic cruises can restart”.
Mr Foy said the cruise sector is an important part of the north-east visitor economy, both economically and symbolically, with a pre-pandemic summer cruise season typically welcoming more than 3,000 passengers to Aberdeen and Peterhead.
He warned that the significant growth potential arising from the opening of the new harbour in Aberdeen – which was pitched on the basis of increasing access to the lucrative cruise market – is now at risk of starting on the “back foot”.
Mr Foy said: “More immediately the ongoing suspension is taking its toll on the sector and the local supply chain it supports.
“This is a highly responsible industry. The cruise sector voluntarily suspended operations ahead of government guidance in 2020 and is the first in the travel and tourism sector to commit to 100% testing for passengers and crews worldwide.”
Cruise lines have been operating domestic routes in the rest of the UK since May 20 and Mr Foy said Scotland’s exclusion highlights the “significant anomaly” in the rules that allows coaches to transport passengers to the same destinations cruise ships cannot.
Cruise operators need around three months to prepare for a full restart so industry leaders say there is an “urgent need” for the Scottish Government to review the restrictions and “prevent further damage to local businesses”.
Another hammer blow
Scottish Conservative North East MSP Liam Kerr, who visited Aberdeen Airport bosses on Monday, said the decision to introduce travel restrictions was made in an “appalling manner” and will be “another hammer blow” for Aberdeen Airport, which was anticipating high uptake on the new EasyJet route.
“Families and businesses who were supposed to be travelling have been left out of pocket by the farcical stance taken by the SNP Government,” Mr Kerr said.
“I hope Nicola Sturgeon is thinking about financially assisting Aberdeen Airport and the airlines whose businesses have been devastated by the Scottish Government’s decision-making process.
“She has left it up to the struggling airlines to deal with refund payments during a time when the aviation sector is on its knees.
“It’s high time the Scottish Government faced up to the chaos caused by this and considered compensating those who have been left financially worse off by the decision.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said officials “fully understand the impact of the current restrictions on domestic cruises and the wider travel industry”.
He said concerns about the transmission risks posed by vessels had been explained to industry on May 24 and the decision to only allow domestic cruises to restart when the whole of Scotland reaches level one in the government’s five-tier restrictions system was made “following extensive engagement with stakeholders”.
The spokesman said this had been informed by “the combination of risks that exists between both cruises and the wider travel context” in addition to the potential for high risk of uncontained rapid transmission on the cruise and the potential for the virus to spread at multiple port stops.
He added: “These are only some of the risks, and although some of them could be mitigated through good protocols, it is the accumulation of all of the risks involved which has led to this decision.
“We are aware of concerns raised by the industry relating to this decision. The minister for business, trade, tourism and enterprise met with sector representatives on June 18, including CLIA, to hear these concerns.”