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Hoping for the best, expecting the worst’: uncertainty reigns but tourism industry remains hopeful

TOURISM chiefs and businesses are hopeful the Shetland community’s renowned resilience and determination will help the beleaguered local industry build on a “slow upwards trend” in bookings for later this year.

The successful UK vaccine rollout looks set to enable further reopening of society from late April. And, while many restrictions will remain in force until at least late June, having lost most of the 2020 season hotels, guest houses, tour guides and other tourism providers are eager to make what they can of 2021.

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Responding to a VisitScotland consultation on the subject on Monday night, members of Lerwick Community Council (LCC) were largely opposed to additional travel restrictions remaining in place when Scotland begins to open up in a few weeks’ time.

VisitScotland’s current four-week marketing campaign is targeted at Scottish residents travelling within the country. While its promotions may extend to the rest of the UK later in the year it is unlikely foreign tourists will be permitted to visit for some time.

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VisitScotland islands manager Steve Mathieson.
From 26 April mainland residents will be permitted to travel between different local authority areas – but Shetland still waits, with mounting frustration, for government clarity on what level of restrictions will apply here.

Speaking during the LCC meeting, Lerwick South councillor Amanda Hawick said it was important that “we are in line with Scotland – to move forward as the rest of the country does”.

SIC convener Malcolm Bell said he felt the danger of visitors spreading Covid-19 was “fairly minimal” and “we need to be ready to welcome tourists back to our islands as soon as we are ready”.

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“We opened up last year and we didn’t see it cause any great deal of difficulty, and that was without a vaccine,” Bell said. “We rely on our tourist industry. It’s important to us.”

Indeed, when the Covid-19 pandemic first hit these shores in March 2020, Shetland had been on the verge of its busiest ever tourism season – including a record number of cruise ships.

VisitScotland’s islands manager Steve Mathieson is, however, realistic that it won’t simply be a case of picking up where things left off.

Slogans that would have seemed preposterous 12 months ago, such as “dream now, travel later”, have become the norm. Coronavirus has presented an obvious challenge for organisations whose purpose is to sell the islands to the wider world – including Visit Scotland, Promote Shetland and the Shetland Tourism Association.

So what can tourism businesses hope to salvage from 2021, which is VisitScotland’s designated “year of coastal waters”?

Mathieson points out that UK-based visitors “always form the main part of the market”. With foreign holidays in either direction looking increasingly unlikely for much of the year, could that be an opportunity as much as a threat?

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“We can’t do anything too quickly,” he says. “We’re very much looking forward to opening up for greater tourism, but we’re also very aware that we don’t want that to be a source of any new outbreaks of Covid.”

Measures enacted by Loganair and NorthLink have been “very successful” in restricting the spread so far and “we want that to continue whilst opening up”.

“From what I can see, people are already looking to book holidays from June onwards, starting to book accommodation,” Mathieson says.

“There’s just a very slow upwards trend at the moment in terms of bookings. If we can build on that in a safe way, it could well be that we will have a tourist season from June onwards, albeit with restrictions in place.”

Lerwick South member Amanda Westlake is worried about the impact a three per cent council tax rise will have on the working poor.
Lerwick South member Amanda Hawick. Photo: Shetland News
With the UK’s vaccine rollout having been “highly successful” to date, the aim is to build on that and lay the groundwork for “a successful season next year”.

“Maybe the industry won’t be the same size – things will have to be done differently for some time to come. It’s going to be a slow building process, but the sooner we can start putting those building blocks in place the better.”

Mathieson is hopeful islanders’ in-built resilience will ensure most businesses survive – some smaller B&Bs and self-catering properties reported good levels of booking for parts of 2020.

Short-term uncertainty

Of greater concern is the hotel sector with its larger overheads. VisitScotland will continue arguing for greater support to ensure such businesses can “open up more with confidence, both for staff and guests”, he adds.

Shetland Tourism Association chairwoman Emma Miller has spoken of continuing “frustration” on behalf of members facing even greater short-term uncertainty than mainland businesses.

It is “extremely unfair” that with under three weeks to go before restrictions are due to ease, we still don’t know the upshot of a government consultation on whether islanders may accept greater travel restrictions as a trade-off to allow earlier reopening locally.

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“It’s frustration that this has been going on for so long,” Miller says. “We’ve had a little glimmer of hope about being able to reopen; it all gets taken away again. Places were busy, then shut down again and it’s about three months now that [some] hospitality businesses have just not been able to operate.”

A situation where some businesses “have been shut more than they’ve been open” is clearly not sustainable for long and “certainty is what folk need”.

While accommodation providers should be able to welcome guests after reopening, Miller points out that guidance for the likes of tour guides “isn’t just all that clear. While folk can use public transport and taxis, will journeying by car with a guide or hopping on a tour bus be permitted?

So far Covid-19 has put paid to Viking fire festivals, country shows, live music, Shetland Wool Week and many other events. Miller points out that, were businesses to miss out on tourism this summer, by next spring it would effectively have been five winter seasons back-to-back in trading terms.

Busta House Hotel.
“If we have another full season of just not being able to operate, that’s nearly two years and that just can’t carry on for small businesses.”

Those words will ring true for Busta House Hotel co-manager Grant O’Neil, who is hopeful of seeing “some form of a season” in 2021, though he remains cautious about reopening too swiftly.

Putting Shetland into level 2 measures for a few weeks with continued restrictions on travel until May or June is his preferred route back towards greater normality.

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“I think maybe opening up internally, more freedom for people up here first before we open up for leisure visitors [is the way to go],” he says. “We’ve got to be very cautious and careful.”

O’Neil is hopeful the tourist season’s tail-end could eke out into late October, with people perhaps keener to holiday within the UK this year regardless of whether foreign travel is permitted.

In the meantime, “absolutely phenomenal” local support has kept Busta afloat. In addition to offering constrained lunch and dinner services – non-residents have to be out by 6pm as per current guidelines – they are now offering accommodation to locals again.

But worries for the business are far from over. “Last year was obviously devastating and if we had another full year like that I don’t know how we’d be able to continue,” O’Neil adds.

Jolene Garriock has built up her Island Vista business, offering local tours and excursions, partly but not exclusively on the back of a sharp rise in the volume of visiting cruise ships in recent years.

She feels cruise ship companies “have a lot of respect for the community” and a lot of consideration is being given to testing stations and other mitigation measures to allay concerns among passengers, guides and local folk alike.

She says there is a “mixed feeling” among tour guides, who are “hopeful that things will go ahead” but wary after a series of false starts last summer.

Garriock points out a lot of people had been making their full-time living out of tour guiding prior to the pandemic.

“Some of the guides have done particularly well coming up with different ventures; others have gone back to doing other jobs,” she says.

Uncertainty continues to reign, and things are likely to remain up in the air until there is greater clarity on what rules and regulations will apply to each sub-sector of the tourism industry.

Garriock adds: “That really sums up the feeling among the guides – hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.”

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