Scotland is Calling
The gentle swish of the wind worrying the leaves, the flight of some beastie underfoot, the rush of hidden water and the creak and groan of the trees that have seen it all. It’s amazing what you notice when your senses have the inclination. Taking a simple walk in nature in these pandemic-dominated times is suddenly a very different kind of experience. I’ve become estranged with the outdoors for the entirety of the year and have had to wait patiently to begin the shy reacquaintance. But with a busy autumnal season of travel ahead, the time has come.
It’s been several months since my last post. In addition to the restrictions and risks brought about by Covid-19, I’ve had the all-consuming responsibilities of beginning a historical fiction novel and raising a Golden Retriever puppy. The novel is taking shape nicely as I dive into the grime of medieval Scotland and attempt to find a different take on our most legendary chapter in the times of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Or rather it was taking shape nicely until little Harris entered my life. Priming a new Scotland adventurer for years of bounding about the hills, ruins and beaches has been utterly relentless, but his most difficult adjustment period is now closed and he’ll even be joining me on some of my trips over the next couple of months. Oh my.
I’ll be dotting around most of the mainland, hopefully bringing back plenty of inspiration for others and showing off the diversity of these lands. I should underline that I’ll not necessarily be promoting these places with 2020 in mind for you but – and you wouldn’t be alone here – if you are already looking longingly towards next year’s travel planning then there may be something in what I unearth that proves useful. I start easy, with day-trip walks in the Trossachs and history hunting within easy reach of my home base in Glasgow. I’ll be aiming to capture solitude and those almost-forgotten natural sensations, as well as observe how our castles have fared after months of neglect and loneliness.
In blogs posted earlier this year I summarised the state of play and, in a nutshell, Scotland recovered from a painfully slow initial reaction to weather the virus storm pretty well. It has been contained over summer with a very low number of deaths and we’ve seen restrictions eased throughout peak tourism season as a result. Quarantine enforcement has predictably and heavily depleted international visitor numbers, but many Scots and Brits have holidayed here which has at least prevented the place from feeling empty.
Most recently, however, in the aftermath of all that travel and with schools and workplaces transitioning back, we’re seeing the expected gradual rise in cases (although not deaths so far thank goodness) and, despite major alarm bells not currently ringing, it seems obvious to surmise that winter 2020 is going to be nervy.
The Impact on Tourism
Well it’s been a disaster hasn’t it.
I wish there was more cause for optimism – and longer-term there may very well be as Scotland’s most enticing natural and historical assets haven’t changed – but my personal observations tell me that the industry may be taking plenty of bruising knocks for some time yet. Even after we leave 2020 behind, some international travellers are likely to continue to face prohibitive and discriminatory quarantine issues as different countries handle new outbreaks much better than others. Folk are generally still going to be very wary of travel (particularly by air). Many tourism businesses, big and small, will simply disappear due to the delicate nature of their margins. The human side of the Scottish tourism product, that welcoming hospitality that we’re so famous for, will be diluted and hidden behind facemasks. And it seems what we’re most likely to see in 2021 is a broadly similar continuation of the trends we’ve had this summer – more short-distance tourism that prioritises self-containment and isolation. In other words, lots of independent camping and self-catering.
Now, a bit of that stuff is great and I’ve enjoyed plenty of it myself in recent years so I’m not knocking it, per se. It’s long been an interesting arm of the Scottish tourism scene, and I especially like that locals are looking on Scotland with new interest (forced upon them as it may be). Economically, though, this is dire stuff. And it’s a grimness that I must say has brought out a state of denial from many that work in tourism and in the mainstream media here (not exactly known for its quality at the best of times). I have been sought out by numerous journalists over the summer keen on creating lazy and misleading headlines in articles claiming that the ‘staycation’ market will save the industry. But overflowing car parks and congested mountain trails do not tell the true story. Because pitching a leaky tent that’s been dug out from the cobwebs at the back of the garage and forking out for no further than some tuna sandwiches from Tesco funnily enough does hee-haw for actual tourism and job creation. The industry ordinarily creates around 10% of GDP in Scotland, and is an employer of tens of thousands. It encompasses accommodation providers, tour companies, restaurants, distilleries, public transport, visitor attractions and many more. They all pitch in passionately to make Scotland one of the best ‘experience’ destinations in the world. This new kind of low spend, high containment tourism we’ve seen in 2020 (I refer mainly to the Highlands and Islands here) does precious little, if anything, to help any of them survive this economic crisis.
Socially and culturally, too, the explosion in wild camping has met with plenty of regional uproar, dismay and disgust. I’ve never seen the like as social media has been flooded all summer with evidence of bad behaviour in our rural escapes. Littering, ignorantly constructed campfires, illegal parking, hyper over-tourism at the most predictable beauty spots…. Stupidity and selfishness appear to have gone into overdrive, with no-one benefitting. Those actually working in tourism therefore face the new, and unexpected, challenge of helping to raise awareness of such bad behaviour and educate and encourage local travellers that their backyard is as fragile as it is convenient.
More indirectly, the knock-on effect on the housing market (which has gone berserk over the summer as buyers evacuate the cities, particularly London) in rural areas is alarming too with second home seekers driving up property prices exponentially, pricing out locals in the process. We can expect an accelerated exodus of young people of working age (many who’d ordinarily be drawn to tourism employment) from these areas, not to mention the ‘ghost town’ effect of many second homes that only see their owners for a painfully small percentage of the year and that otherwise lie soulless and empty. Is that really what visitors imagine when they come from far and wide to see this wonderful country for themselves?
It’s all become very serious, and concerning. A sudden far cry from the days when tourism was the ‘fun’ industry, synonymous with innocence, memory making and universally happy faces.
So, this, the stuff of 2020 to date, for me, is not tourism. And all that has transpired this year places me in a difficult position. I moved into this industry (almost a decade ago now) because I enjoy telling stories about Scotland. I love the excitement that folk get when they are planning a trip here and when they find a deep connection to my homeland – in whatever form that takes. I wanted to help them – even if just modestly – get the best out of the place on a practical level too, and by giving them the confidence to experience the country in their own unique way. The fact I’ve loved learning more about home, have been able to mould some sort of bizarre career out of it and have had some unforgettable experiences was nice too of course.
But Covid-19 has, and will, change things for me. I’ve travelled much less; I’ve completely avoided the potentially extremely vulnerable and remote areas; I’ve published much less online (out of a hesitancy to promote regions that don’t want it); I’ve sweepingly ruled out working with various businesses and sub-industries that could well exacerbate the problem as I see it and I’ve chosen to sit out the summer season entirely simply because I didn’t feel there was much I could, should, or wanted to add.
On lengthy reflection though, I’m not quite done with tourism. I’ll have to continue to be very selective, focus on other areas of income generation and change my tactics a bit to adapt but I’ll not be packing it all in just yet. I’ve ended up naturally falling into line with most of the tourism bodies in their marketing activity and am only now, tentatively, getting going for the year having let the summer be. As ever, but now even more so, I hope to be able to dissuade knee-jerk travel instincts and find ways to convince readers that they have to dig a little deeper to find the very best of Scotland. But it’s there. And it most certainly can present much more than just a quick fix to the need we are all having for escapism.
I’ve enjoyed keeping at least partially up to date with many of you on social media over the summer, often chatting through how the pandemic has impacted you and your plans. If you’re following me and reading these blogs you clearly have an interest in Scotland, and in travel, so I’d love to hear more from you. How has it affected your views on travel? Aside from the obvious, what are your big concerns with exploring Scotland in the foreseeable? Are you worried that the place won’t be the same? Does the prospect of short-distance travel (wherever you are) appal you, or can you find an opportunity there? And for those who have travelled here this year, what has been your experience? Let me know in the comments.
Starting tomorrow and continuously over the coming weeks I’ll be covering the Trossachs, West Lothian, Midlothian, the Borders, the north west mainland, Aberdeenshire, the Central Highlands and, of course, Glasgow. Virus dependent, I may or may not fit in a short trip to the Outer Hebrides as well. Parking Covid talk for a bit, I’ll be returning to my usual service of showing off Scotland to you all, which feels good. Whether for vicarious travel, future inspiration or just cute photos of me getting dragged about by an over-zealous puppy….do join us.
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