Scrap the two-metre rule: tourism group’s plea to boost Highland business

The road to Applecross

The group behind the North Coast 500 tourist route has urged the two-metre rule on social distancing be scrapped.

David Whiteford, Chair of the North Highland Initiative, wants the guidelines eased to help businesses reliant on the visitor trade.

Last week the Scottish Government’s Tourism Secretary, Fergus Ewing, set a provisional date of 15th July for tourism businesses to resume operations.

Mr Ewing said the date would be “dependent on public health advice and progression to phase three of the Scottish Government lock-down route-map”.

Mr Whiteford said he believed anxieties would be eased if the Scottish Government now dropped its ‘stay at home’ message.

David Whiteford

He added: “The ‘stay home and save lives’ message has been very effective, but for many people, especially those living in more remote and rural communities, there is a fear that changing this behaviour may pose a risk to public health and wellbeing.

“Our famous ‘Highland Welcome’ is at risk of becoming tarnished, affecting tourism long term.

“We now need the Scottish Government to implement a national and local campaign to allay anxiety amongst local Highland communities and deliver a positive, uplifting message as we take safe, measured steps to emerge from lockdown.

“We need to look at what other countries have done with social distancing by reducing it from two metres to one metre.

“It’s the only way that many tourism and hospitality businesses will be viable.”

Since it was launched in 2015, the rebranding of the coastal road network as the NC500 has been credited with bosting businesses in the region by as much as 20 per cent year on year.

However, along with the rapid growth came concerns over road and infrastructure problems along the route.

The initiative has also faced accusations of turning the route into a race track, from which many small businesses see little benefit from visitors who tend to pass through, rather than stop.

Meanwhile, the industry body for tourism businesses in the Western Isles said the 15th July will be ‘of little benefit’ to tourism businesses in the islands if travel restrictions remain in place beyond that date.

Travel to islands like Barra is restricted Pic P.TOMKINS / VisitScotland

The Chief Executive of Outer Hebrides Tourism, Rob McKinnon, said last week’s announcement “was a welcome sign that the end of a long and tough period of lock-down is approaching, and gives businesses a fighting chance of making it through to 2021.”

But he suggested that if current ferry restrictions remained – with the Loch Seaforth limited to 100 passengers per sailing – customers won’t be able to get to the islands.”

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar confirmed last week that island authorities “are involved in discussions” regarding any proposed amendments to travel restrictions on ferries to and from the islands.

The Comhairle said it is “seeking clarification” on eligibility for travel as restrictions are gradually eased “with a preference for island residents and essential travellers being the priority in the initial stages”.

Additional reporting by Peter Urpeth, local democracy reporter