Well, this was unexpected….
NB//This blog was written and published on March 14th 2020 and is subject to constant change as the crisis develops.
This is typically the time of year when I’m engaged in all sorts of cheery, can’t-wait gabs about exciting upcoming adventures in Scotland. Not so in 2020 it seems and the only chat on offer this month concerns coronavirus, the economy-crippling nightmare that has delivered a worldwide panic just as spring finally enters its final approach. How will it affect plans, what impact is it having on Scottish tourism, what’s the outlook in Scotland just now, what can I do to protect myself…..
Lots of advice being sought. Let me say that I certainly don’t have much, and what I do have shouldn’t be taken as anything other than amateur observation and industry personal experience. It’s one for medical experts, and even they are turning nervously towards guesswork in the face of this unprecedented lethal wave.
How is Scotland Coping?
Cases are relatively low in the UK at this moment compared with the other big European countries. Northern Italy has of course been particularly hard hit. Less than 100 positive tests have come in in Scotland, a country of around 5.5 million people. Based on that, it’s not a cause for flat-out panic just yet (despite the sudden absence of toilet roll everywhere). It is certain to get considerably worse in the immediate future though, and the next few weeks are likely to see numbers peak.
Unlike in Italy at the moment there is no lockdown. No curfews. Many are arguing that the somewhat liberal approach shows UK authorities in denial, hamstrung by indecision and absent leadership. Time will tell.
As of 21/03/2020 the official government instructions are to stay home. Mass gatherings are banned, schools and businesses are closed across the country and social distancing is being advised. The level of enforcement still falls behind the likes of France, Germany and Italy but the direction of travel seems clear.
The Scottish Tourism Industry
It was going so well…..
Obviously the extraordinary surge in Scottish tourism numbers couldn’t have kept up forever and the sensible among us have all being quietly aware that the tide could turn. It was always going to be a rocky year as Brexit took hold and tanked visitor numbers from the EU. But coronavirus is on course to dwarf that negative impact as international visitor numbers, even from reliable key geographic areas such as North America, Australia, New Zealand and the growing surge from China, plunge dramatically.
It is probably a fair assumption that staycation visitor numbers will go up ie. people from around the UK holidaying close to home. Folk won’t want to travel, especially on planes, so the thought of keeping public exposure to a minimum by self-driving and heading to rural, sparsely-populated locations makes sense (as long as it’s not detrimentally affecting the locals). Immediate indicators (this month) suggest people are afraid to do even that and are largely self-isolating completely! Logic though would hint that this hyper-caution will fade once governments develop strategies to cope and information is better disseminated. We can’t all stay locked in our homes indefinitely.
Jobs and the Economy
The optimism of recent years has led to all sorts of people turning to tourism for career opportunities, myself included. And not just the seasonal, part-time, low-paid work that is typically associated with the industry either. Folk have career-changed and seen long-term opportunities to work in a fun industry that was growing faster than ever. These people could now be in big trouble.
Public sector funding freezes will impact many, with the self-employed as ever the hardest hit. More directly, small business (tour organisers, activity specialists, accommodation and food and drink providers….) these guys could face catastrophic losses due to immediate downturns that quickly make their business unsustainable given their tight cash flow margins. Help these businesses if you can – even buying gift vouchers for a future meal, stay etc is potentially an excellent way of supporting them. And this is a time for creative thinking – if you have any other tips for how to help such businesses tell me in the comments and help spread the word. To be blunt though, if you were thinking this is the big year to move into tourism, I’m afraid you might want to think again.
The airline industry is also taking a battering. Flybe went bust last week, one of the UK’s best-known airlines. Air travel is apparently down by around 15% on many airlines this month I hear, although I can’t believe it’s as optimistic as that. I’d expect all airlines to see huge losses this year, with others likely collapsing completely too. Air travel routes will inevitably be trimmed and getting to remoter locations such as our isles may even be impossible by air. Good news environmentally I would suggest (we need to be flying less as a general point) but to happen this quickly and unexpectedly is likely to be disastrous to remoter communities and local economies.
Travel insurance companies are going to be facing interesting times too. Consumer protections are often misguiding and inadequate so never assume that trip cancellations based on an airline or travel agent collapsing will be covered. Expect specific Ts&Cs for coronavirus to take precedence in your documentation going forward. And, I’d suggest, ensure that you are medically covered should you become ill here. Our health service is on its knees at the best of times and there has been talk of “difficult decisions” having to be made in terms of who to prioritise in terms of healthcare during the pandemic, a sobering thought.
How to Travel Safely in Scotland
It seems clear that there is no way to be 100% safe from coronavirus for now. Work on a vaccine is on-going but seems likely to be several months away and would have to be comprehensively tested and mass-produced before being publicly available. In the meantime, rural regions (and we have a few) will hold low-risk compared with urban hotspots. The chances of catching coronavirus on a hill walk or while investigating a loch-side ruin are near-zero. As soon as you go into a restaurant, hotel or B&B though, risk levels will rise considerably. I imagine all of these providers will suddenly be seeking to present ever-greater assurances as to their levels of cleanliness.
About the only real advice coming from beleaguered government authorities at the moment is to wash your hands regularly and keep a decent distance from other humans. Don’t shake hands, catch your coughs and contact medical authorities immediately if showing symptoms. Again, I myself have nothing to offer by way of advice and I suspect any official guidance will evolve anyway as the pandemic progresses.
As of 21/03/2020 the advice coming from our more remoter areas is not to visit. Although there is a much lesser chance of contracting and spreading the virus in these areas, the strain on the medical facilities could be too much to handle for those that fall ill. Stay home. Hopefully you will have access to outdoor areas not far from home if you live in Scotland, but social distancing must hold if we are to block this virus. Stay home.
For international visitors, the travel risk is obviously going to be higher (if you even have the option to travel). Being stuck in a pressurised container for several hours brings obvious higher risk of contagion. Would I fly at the moment? Personally, no. Not a chance. There has now been a travel ban announced between the US and Europe. Once the tourism season officially starts, we will see where we stand with regulations but it seems highly unlikely that travel will be permitted, from just about anywhere in the world if things continue at this pace.
Key update – As of the 19th March 2020, Calmac Ferries have suspended bookings for ferries to the west coast islands. At present, there are still ferries running for existing bookings and those who ‘show up and go’ but no food is being served on board. Anticipate issues with ferry travel (indeed all forms of travel) and make plans in advance and subject to the latest developments.
What a world, eh? Much of the above will soon become out of date information as the astonishing impact of coronavirus snowballs by the hour. In the meantime, do remember that Scotland isn’t going anywhere. If you feel that postponing or cancelling trips to protect you, your family and other travellers then safety first is hard to argue with.
Me, I’ll be watching on with interest. Expect less ‘in the field’ travel from me this year as I focus on other areas of my business. But I’ll still be here gabbing away about Scotland whenever I possibly can. If there is any possibility of solo day trips to the Highlands and Islands I will certainly try. Failing that, I’ll do what I can to share stories from around Scotland daily on Twitter – to help spread key travel messages and, hopefully, raise spirits just a little.
My thoughts are with anyone directly affected by the virus so far and good luck to you all in these difficult times.
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