Tourism industry reopening: West Highland and Islands business owners have their say

A queue of people awaits entry to the Isle of Skye Ice Cream shop in Portree earlier this week.

For tens of thousands of businesses across Scotland – from bars to boutiques, from hairdressers to hotels, Wednesday 15th July marked their first day of custom for almost four months if not of the year.

As the country eases out of the lockdown introduced to halt the spread of Covid-19, for regions such as the Highland and Islands where much of the economy is predicated on the success of the tourism industry, the return of visitors this week was warmly welcomed by the many whose livelihoods are dependant on the success of the sector.

Although the full impact of the pandemic on businesses remains unclear, the Fraser of Allander Institute on Friday (17th July) predicted that the Scottish economy will have contracted by around 19.2% during the second quarter of 2020.

Indeed, in its Latest GDP Data for Scotland update, the institute stated “It is only when the economy starts to emerge from the lockdown that the full long-term impacts of the crisis will be realised.

“So, whilst official data like GDP may ‘start to recover’, the economic crisis we face is only just beginning and the recovery for many businesses and individuals is a long way off.”

With many employers within the tourism industry opening their doors against a backdrop of financial uncertainty while adapting to a myriad of health and safety protocols, the Free Press sought the views of business owners across the West Highlands and Islands to gauge their opinions on what the lockdown has meant for them and their thoughts on what the next few weeks, months and beyond might have in store.

The Anchorage Restaurant, Leverburgh, Harris

Photo credit: The Anchorage Restaurant.

Sally Kessie owns and operates the Anchorage Restaurant in Leverburgh. The restaurant is not due to open until next month, however, Sally has been running a takeaway service for the past four months.

“I haven’t yet reopened the restaurant, that won’t be until the 1st of August, but my takeaway has certainly started to take-off since about a week ago,” said Sally.

“I have been open for 18 weeks but our orders have trebled if not quadrupled since last weekend.

“We’re also launching a click and collect service to help people in self-catering accommodation to eat safely and share prepare meals.”

Sally said she had taken a significant number of calls from people trying to book a table since 15th July, while also fielding people who had come off of the ferry and tried to walk into the restaurant.

Although The Anchorage is just a few weeks away from reopening, Sally said there were considerable challenges facing the restaurant in attracting people to eat there.

She said: “The local Facebook pages can be quite negative and I have had a lot of people enquiring about this – such as personal messages from previous customers.

“I have been here for 16 years and would say that 80 per cent of my customers are regulars – year on year – and they have been asking me what the lay of the land is, locally, because they are a bit nervous to come up this year

“And the other challenge of course is the coronavirus – which is making people nervous about eating out in a restaurant or a bar.”

Photo credit: The Anchorage Restaurant.

Looking to the future, Sally said she was scared for her business.

“I’m very concerned about capacity – because with two-metre distancing we are down to 30 per cent capacity – and I don’t think we are even going to get to that,” she said.

“I am absolutely terrified for the next two to three years – I haven’t had an income since September last year and I’m living on a bounce-back loan and the £10,000 grant – which will only go so far.

“If we get locked down again in the next few weeks or months – during this already shortened season – it could mean no income until next season.

“What happens if we are still at 30 – 40 per cent next year – I don’t know how small businesses are going to be sustained.”

The Tractor Shed – camping beds and bunkhouse, Paible, North Uist

Photo credit: The Tractor Shed

Duncan Griffiths runs the Tractor Shed in North Uist. He reopened his business on Wednesday 15th July.

Speaking to the Free Press on Friday, he said he had welcomed 11 guests over the first two days, while nine people had booked to stay there that evening.

However, Duncan said that a combination of restricted ferry travel and unhelpful opinions expressed via social media had presented difficulties for his business.

“People still don’t have the confidence because of the ferry capacity and booking and because of some of the negative social media comments.

“Some misinformation has been spread and a lot of people haven’t realised the precautions those within the tourism industry are taking to keep everything safe.

“People have got to be brave in opening up but must also follow the guidelines on hygiene – I’m going through so much bleach – I’m scrubbing things for about two or three hours a day longer than I would have done normally.”

Photo credit: The Tractor Shed.

Assessing the impact of the lockdown and the reduction in the Tractor Shed’s capacity, he said: “I reckon by end of this season my turnover will be down by about 65 per cent.

“I was going to open another site this year, so that will have to be put on hold, so if you factor that into it – well it’s scary.

“That 65 per cent includes a £10,000 small business grant – people in tourism have taken a massive hit.”

He added: “The capacity of the Tractor Shed has been reduced significantly, by about a third.

“I have limited it to the number of bathrooms we have got – so there are four people to a bathroom.”

Looking ahead to the next few weeks and months, he added: “This year the Tractor Shed would usually be able to take 26 people max, but this year I will take a maximum of 16 people.

“That has not been imposed, it’s what I have decided to do myself. Having 16 people here is safe, but 26 people would not be – it would be impossible to social distance.

“Some nights we will be full within that reduced capacity, other nights we won’t.

“We have a two-day minimum stay, we’ll take the hit because it’s about being responsible and keeping everyone safe.”

The Plockton Inn, Plockton

Photo credit: The Plockton Inn.

Mary Gollan, of the Plockton Inn, opened a beer garden last week, ahead of the main building opening for accommodation and food.

She has been encouraged by the response so far but added that she was disappointed that the business – one of the village’s biggest employers – had faced delays in accessing support from the Scottish Government.

Her business was initially rejected for a Pivotal Resilience Fund grant, for firms with a rateable value of over £51,000, though an appeal did prove successful in accessing extra finance.

Mary said: “We reopened with a new beer garden across the road last week for food and drink and it has been fairly successful.

“We will be spread pretty thin staff-wise with all the necessary extra cleaning, documenting contact details, making sure customers follow the correct one-way system, and other protocols.

“As for bookings, they are very encouraging, I think.

“A few people are looking for reassurance that they will be welcomed in the area but I think generally that people outwith the tourist industry accept that we have to move forward.

“I think people will have to accept that service will be slower but then we won’t have the same numbers as usual.”

The Ceilidh Place, Ullapool

Photo credit: The Ceilidh Place.

Jock Urquhart is the owner/managing director of The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool, he and his sister operate the business alongside their respective partners.

Commenting on The Ceilidh Place’s return he told the Free Press: “It’s been okay, in some regards it’s like starting a new operation in that the systems are a wee bit different.

“We started again last weekend with an outside table operation, which was socially-distanced and we tried to expand into a space we had which we don’t normally use with some extra tables outside.

“We are now in the building and have followed the myriad guidelines that are there and have made provision for everyone to maintain excellent hand hygiene.

“It’s very nice to have people back and a bit of life, because it was really soul-destroying having the building so empty, cold and dark through the lockdown.

“Especially when usually there is such a buzz with music here.”

Jock said that there had been a steady increase in visitors every day since the reopening of the B and B and hotel sectors but said it wasn’t a patch on what the Ceilidh Place would normally expect in terms of custom in July.

Photo credit: The Ceilidh Place.

Addressing the issue of staffing he said: “The seasonal model of tourism and hospitality businesses in smaller places is to take the fillip from a big summer which helps you through the winter without doing the fairly awful thing of putting people out of work for four or five months of the year.

“We certainly believe as employers that people deserve the dignity and security of year-round employment and we try to maintain that.

“And while we do turn a little bit of profit in the summer, primarily that’s spent on our staff in the winter.”

Reasonably optimistic

Jock said he was reasonably optimistic when appraising what the next few months would hold for the Ceilidh Place.

“Every time it became more concrete and secure that the industry would reopen the phone would go,” he said.

“People are wanting to travel, that’s new folk and long-term regular guests who very nicely have said they are desperate to come.

“I’m reasonably heartened and while I haven’t had a lot of conversations with other people in the tourism game, the few folks I have spoken to are hopeful.

“He added: “September/October is when we start to see a bit of a drop-off, whether or not we get people determined to stay here during the bad weather remains to be seen.”

“We can’t do any of this without the whole team and everyone is pulling together really well and trying to make this ‘new normal’ work.

“I’ve been in this industry for 30 years – and you’re constantly refining your processes, and while we were pretty good at the old normal, as an industry, we will look at ways where we can be more efficient and user-friendly to our clients.”