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26/05/2020

“Tourism Needs Greater Lockdown Clarity Not Foul-Mouthed Tweets”

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford’s retweet of an image of the Scottish-English Border with the slogan “We’re shut. F*** off!” is far from what’s needed to help the Scottish tourist industry, writes Murdo Fraser.

The following article has been published in The Scotsman (26th May):

“Within an hour of the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon making a statement to the Scottish Parliament last Thursday on her “route map” out of lockdown, my email inbox had filled up with queries from constituents: Am I now able to visit my granny in Inverness? Am I allowed to play golf if my club is more than five miles from my home? Can I get back to work now, if I am working alone in the open air?

Despite all the detail that the Scottish Government tried to provide in relation to the different phases that would allow lockdown to be relaxed, there were as many questions as there were answers. They all put into a degree of perspective the criticisms made by many Nationalist politicians of Boris Johnson’s announcement two weeks ago of relaxations in England, and the confusion and mixed messages that might arise from those. It just confirms what many observers have noted that, whilst getting into lockdown is a relatively simple process with straightforward messages, coming out of it is likely to be much more complex, and confusing for the public.

Indeed, despite all the rhetoric from the Scottish Government about Scotland having to take a different path from other parts of the UK, the First Minister’s publication was remarkably similar to that of the Prime Minister, albeit several weeks delayed. It was, as Ruth Davidson observed last week, a bit like watching a TV channel on plus 1, with a built-in delay.

One sector hugely impacted at present, and desperate for answers not being provided last Thursday, is Scottish tourism. An industry worth £7 billion to the Scottish economy has been left in ruins by lockdown. It was announced at the weekend that seven Scottish hotels in towns like Oban and Pitlochry are to close after the collapse of the Specialist Leisure Group, bringing with it well-known coach holiday brands Shearings, Caledonian Travel and Wallace Arnold. Undoubtedly there will be many business failures to follow.

The trade association UK Hospitality has urged ministers to provide a clear timetable for an exit from lockdown. In response, Economy Secretary Fiona Hyslop said that she hopes the industry will have a summer season, albeit later than normal. However, she was unable to give any dates, leaving operators in the invidious position of being unable to accept forward bookings and plan ahead.

Equally concerning is the fact that within the Government’s Covid-19 route map, no distinction has been drawn between hotel-style accommodation and self-catering properties; both being lumped into Phase 3. This choice is inexplicable to those in the industry, who believe that it is perfectly possible to operate self-catering cottages, holiday lodges and caravan parks with appropriate social distancing, when that is much harder for hotels and guest houses. Lodge park operators who have taken forward bookings for the summer now face having to repay deposits and potentially put their businesses at risk, due to the approach the Scottish Government is taking.

The Economy Secretary stated that she wants to see people from England come and visit when it is safe to do so. Quite how encouraging visitors from down south is helped by her party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, endorsing a message on social media incorporating an image of the Scottish Border with the slogan “We’re shut. F*** off!”, remains a mystery. With the rest of the UK being by far the biggest market for domestic Scottish tourism, and crucially important at a time when international travel has virtually disappeared, actions like these are not just deeply irresponsible, but could well have a long-term damaging impact and cost jobs. Moreover, we can only imagine the outrage that there would have been, and the shrieks of dog-whistle racism and xenophobia, had any Conservative politician suggested a similar sign to be erected at Dover directed at visitors from the Continent.

The Scottish tourist industry has been vital to our economy over many decades, and is a great success story in terms of providing employment in rural areas in particular. A sector which has contributed so much to Scotland now needs Government to support it in turn. Greater clarity about its future is required as a matter of urgency.”

With thanks to Murdo Fraser, Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife

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