Scotland’s tourism industry needs long term support to survive COVID crisis
As we move towards the easing of some COVID-19 lockdown measures in Scotland, we can start to think about how we rebuild Scotland’s reputation for being a welcoming and open society. Our sense of community has not dampened because of this pandemic and the comradery we continue to see between neighbours and among communities has played an important role in seeing us through these difficult times. As we see restrictions beginning to ease, and we start to socialize again, we need to appreciate the opportunities there are to restart parts of our economy.
Our vital tourism sector has taken a huge financial hit because of coronavirus, and they are a long way from welcoming visitors. Just before it became clear that lockdown measures were necessary in Scotland, a new strategy was launched to make 2020 a ‘new dawn’ for Scotland’s tourism sector. The focus was going to be less about visitor numbers, which had been the driver of the previous strategy, and more about the visitor experience. This year was dubbed to be a year of enrichment and growth for both Scotland’s residents and visitors. Just weeks after ‘Scotland Outlook 2030’ launched, our tourism industry was shut down. Just as it seemed Scotland’s ambition to be the world leader in 21st century tourism was on track; the world came to a shuddering halt. The peak summer season in Scotland – a busy time with our cultural festivals, outdoor activities, and sporting events – was essentially cancelled. Unless robust measures are taken, the financial and social impact of this on many parts of the country is potentially devastating and long lasting.
There is broad recognition that tourism is one of the sectors most affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Tourism businesses were of the first to feel the impacts of shutdown and will be among the last to emerge from it. The French Prime Minister recently announced an €18bn rescue plan for its tourism sector, including €1.3bn of direct public investment in addition to government guaranteed loans and extended access to solidarity funding. Edouard Philippe argued that “what is good for the tourism industry, is often good for the whole of France”. Our Government needs to take a similar view and place a priority on longer term support for the sector.
The fabric of the tourism sector is at risk. Our museums, pubs, cafes, restaurants, and visitor attractions all benefit from increased activity in the summer months. Those experiencing the impact of the shutdown range from massive venues and hotels as well as small self-catering units, social clubs and B&Bs. Some are receiving support which recognizes the losses they are experiencing but there are still those who are falling through the cracks when it comes to Government targeted support. The immediate goal for many of these businesses is simply survival. The tourism and events industries are vital parts of Scotland’s economy and make a huge contribution in terms of jobs, GDP, and international reputation. The appeal of Scotland to global visitors is well deserved but it is a reputation that involves the hard work of large numbers of people. Tourism supports over 200,000 jobs and accounts for around 8.5% of employment. While across the UK tourism plays an important role, in Scotland it has a vital one.
We must also look further ahead at how to protect these industries when they can open again. There are significant challenges for employment in the sector. While the furlough scheme is vital, this is a sector that will need a level of employment support for longer if jobs are going to be retained. It will take time once Scotland has re-opened before a return to the levels of trade which were familiar before this crisis. Venues may face restrictions on numbers to meet social distancing rules and people who previously attended social gatherings may now be less inclined to gather in large numbers. Business models and pricing structures may need to change, and this will impact on consumers and employees alike.
The Government and enterprise agencies need to support the sector to adapt and diversify, and they need to work in partnership with the sector to adopt sensible and proportionate measures that enable them to re-open when it is safe to do so. They need to be prepared to use a staggered approach that is tailored to different sections of the tourism economy and recognize the different capacity each business must respond to the changed circumstances. Leaders will have a role to play in helping to build the confidence of people to return to something that more resembles their previous life, and to encourage people to adhere to the adaptations that will take place. After the threat of a global pandemic, there will be changes that we will have to accept but there is a future for sharing Scotland with the world if we think creatively and work in partnership to find solutions.