Over 67 per cent of the tourism firms on the iconic North Coast 500 (NC500) are set to re-open as soon as the go-ahead is given by the Scottish Government, according to a new coronavirus business impact survey.
A record 185 tourism businesses from across Inverness-shire, the Black Isle, Easter Ross, Wester Ross, Sutherland and Caithness responded to the NC500 survey between 14th and 26th May.
Accommodation providers, food and drink outlets, retail operators, outdoor and visitor attractions hope that the easing of lockdown measures in Scotland within the coming weeks will mean that the North Highlands could see a staycation boom before the end this year’s summer season.
A further 18 per cent of respondents hope to re-open in 2021.
Scotland’s world-leading NC500 tourist trail marks its fifth anniversary this summer.
What began as an initiative to bring some fresh opportunities to the area was last year estimated to have boosted the economy by £22.89 million and created around 179 full-time jobs.
Now, with at least half the North Highland tourism workforce in furlough and businesses unsure of the future, NC500 business members are rallying to safeguard jobs, protect the hospitality sector and rebuild public confidence before it is too late.
Many NC500 business members are planning to adopt a number of new measures to prioritise public health and safety, including contact-free methods of check-in and payment, changing access arrangements for customers and suppliers, in-room dining and personal protective equipment (PPE) for all staff.
The breath-taking natural scenery, wide-open green spaces, majestic mountain ranges, sandy beaches and rugged coastline of the NC500 are seen to be the key factors that will draw visitors back to the region and away from larger towns and cities after lockdown.
Scotland’s ability to attract a domestic market, the world-class reputation of North Highlands tourism, adventure travel and a social move to wellness and health are cited by NC500 business members as some of the key drivers to re-building the sector post-lockdown.
A positive marketing campaign and a consistent welcoming message are also seen to be vital to regaining consumer confidence.
Quinton Stevens is the owner of The Storehouse at Dingwall, which is a NC500 business member.
“Life is unquestionably different on our section of the North Coast 500.
“Business as we have known it for the last 15 years has stopped and we have rapidly re-invented ourselves to continue trading and employing.
“The NC500 not only has been a fantastic support mechanism for all business across the highlands but they have made it their business to support us individually, delivering opportunities, information and trade.
“Our main hope for the future is that we stay safe, look after each other and create a new normal which delivers stability, economic growth and most importantly happiness amongst us all.
“Every business on the NC500 now has an opportunity to review and re-model itself to meet the expectations of visitors after lockdown.
“We should take this positively and react accordingly.
“Never before have we been given this chance.”
The NC500 businesses community is also working to protect vulnerable local communities in the North Highlands, whilst planning an ‘open for business’ message when it is safe to travel.
The Ullapool Community Trust is bringing together residents and business in an effort to deliver a ‘Safe Tourism Charter’ that enables visitors to be welcomed whilst ensuring residents feel and remain safe.
The Black Isle Partnership is asking locals to fill in a survey to gauge any concerns they have about re-opening tourism in the area, so it can be addressed in advance.
NC500 is planning to hold a series of webinars to actively engage local community groups and businesses in the coming weeks to address any concerns surrounding re-opening the North Highlands to visitors this summer.
Tom Campbell, Chairman of NC500, said:
“It’s clear from the NC500 Covid-19 business impact survey results that the majority of our members want to see a cautious re-opening of North Highland tourism this summer and are looking forward to welcoming back visitors from across Scotland and the rest of the UK.
“With international tourism shredded and the thoughts of many turning to post-lockdown travel, there is every likelihood more Scots than ever before may well follow the lead of tens of thousands of visitors who have already explored the 516-mile route.
“Seismic change in how Scots and other UK nations holiday as a result of Covid-19 could result in a staycation boom, helping to ensure the success of the NC500, businesses and communities along the route continues through difficult times.
“We’re expecting to see more UK visitors heading to Scotland and driving and cycling will be the way people will want to take their holidays.
“As we all begin to think about what life might look like beyond the coronavirus pandemic, we know that the stunning natural landscape of NC500 remains reassuringly unchanged and will continue to inspire people from around Scotland, the rest of the UK and beyond when it’s safe travel.”