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.

Update:

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.

empty streets edinburgh coronavirus
Our busiest streets may soon look like this.
crowds coronavirus scotland travel
Large scale events and gatherings are now postponed or cancelled.

 

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 perfect sense. 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.

seafood scotland
The impact on demand on all industries will be unprecedented.

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.

remote scotland
Head for the hills!

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.

Update:

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.

coronavirus isolation scotland
They could be on to something you know.

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. 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. 

 

Closing Thoughts

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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29 Comments

  1. I’m afraid that it’s made a difference to me. I intended to Airbnb in Inverness but I think that I’ll stay at home now. Pity.

  2. Oh gosh, where to start. This virus is horrific. The snowball effect of all it is impacting is just starting. As you mention above, all the ancillary businesses attached to the tourism industry will suffer. Every industry will feel the same. The fact that a darn virus can literally bring the world to a screeching haunt is sobering. The real kicker for me, this was the year that my maiden voyage to Scotland was looking to be a reality. My sister and I were planning on an early fall trip. Since we have a current travel ban from US to EU, we are reassessing 😞 but trying to remain optimistic we can take this long dreamed about trip to your beautiful country. Chin up, stiff upper lip and all that – we collectively have to remain optimistic and not let COVID 19 destroy everything!!!!! Keep up the great work Neil, hope your travels will not be dampened too much.

    1. I know, a catastrophic impact on our lives across the board. Hopefully by the autumn there will be an element of control to things – it’s extremely hard to see how we can remain shut down for that amount of time but, if there’s no vaccine and the death count keeps going up, we’ll have to. Crazy days. Your first visit will be magical when you get here eventually I’m sure!

  3. Great article, Neal. My heart aches for all those impacted by the one-two punch from this pandemic. Intelligent, informed decision- making is key on every level. Your beautiful photos & videos will sustain the dreamers ( me included), and we just have to wait and see how this evolves. My fingers are crossed for the Fall, and the incredible beauty of Scotland will continue to shine in all it’s glory. And gift vouchers are a great idea! Plan the itinerary & vouchers have the costs already covered. As you say, Scotland isn’t going anywhere!! 😍🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿❤️

    1. Will do my best to keep promoting Scotland whenever I can, without taking risks of course. Fingers crossed as you say and we’re all in this together!

  4. Hello Neil
    Crazy times indeed… Not sure whether our trip to Fife will be possible next week (no flying involved, but who knows whether our ferry will be going). Luckily, the ferry company allows free postponements to later dates. I still need to check with our accommodation, but as we have been there several times before I think they will be okay with that.
    Stay safe, Tanja

    1. Who knows indeed, making it up as we go unfortunately and I’d be very wary of any sort of public transport at the moment I must say. At least with a ferry you can stay up on deck mind you, just watch what you touch! As for postponing, I imagine sensible accommodation providers would be ok with that – it’s the loss of business entirely that’s their biggest fear. Flexibility and understanding on both sides is the way to minimise the chaos here.

      1. Just postponed our trip to October and I hope everything will be back to (almost) normal then. Not sure what happens to our Islay trip in May yet. Let’s stay positive! 🙂

        1. I think it may be next year before things have returned to normal unfortunately but let’s hope we’re over the worst of it by the autumn for sure. I would suggest that Islay in May will be a problem though I’m afraid. Challenging times.

  5. Dear Neil I was hoping to go back to Scotland this summer but kept putting off making arrangements and now this horrible virus has upended everyone’s lives. . So I will make plans for 2021 instead and in the meantime I will look forward to reading your posts. Stay healthy please! Pam

    1. Wise call Pamela as you haven’t booked anything yet. Best to do it without the cloud of this hanging over your plans. And I’ll certainly do all that I can to stay healthy, hope you’re not impacted directly as well.

  6. Neil, is there a way we can support tourism without the tour? I’m not sure what that could look like but I would pay for vicarious Scotland if it gave me 20 minutes of escapism shot and narrated by Scots. It’s such a beautiful country and there are never enough scenic/tourism vids by locals telling their own stories. It’s always the English or an American and that never feels right. If people can’t travel to Scotland, bring Scotland to the people.

    1. i had plans to move to scotland at the end of summer. if i could go today …. i would! a walk in the highlands again would be so much more relaxing than the absolute craziness that is happening here in the united states. trying not to let anxiety be my daily mantra. ha. be safe, neil. be well. xo mimi

      1. The Highlands are good for the soul for sure Mimi. All up in the air of course but I expect the travel ban between Europe and the US will be extended, this isn’t going to disappear quickly. I’m sure you’ll carve out that little bit of bliss for yourself before too long though 😉

    2. Now that’s an idea! Vicarious Scotland. That’s largely what I’ve tried to do anyway of course up to a point on social media but yes it may be that we have to all accept the new reality of not always getting to experience travel for ourselves. In which case it’s all over to locals to paint the pictures for digital audiences, maybe ever-increasingly so. Once things have calmed down I’ll do my best!

  7. No intention of changing our plans for Iona in May. It’s the fourth year running we’ve been to this beautiful island. We will be enjoying the remoteness there; the beaches, the walking, and only needing to pop to the SPAR for stuff to self cater. No tourist cars on the island but you can leave your vehicle in long stay parking by the ferry at Fionnphort on Mull. I always return recharged, and this year I think I’ll need it more than ever.

  8. As I write this Im torn. having worked for the CDC in the US and since retired…I worry for those that are affected by this virus. I also had a huge vacation planned for Scotland in August. We were going to stay in Scotland for a month with family etc or until we were kicked out. LOL
    Seriously I worry about this health issue. Selfish matters aside.

    1. Hear you James, it should not be underestimated and the scenes from Italy with bodybags piling up and people not even able to attend love ones’ funeral puts holiday plans into perspective. But we all need travel and a break from the norm, it’s how we’re built. Hope we’re in the clear by August, good luck!

  9. Great article – I completely agree on the unprecented impact this virus is having globally. It is hard to know exactly how to prepare when it feels like we are just waiting to get sick. Social distancing, self-care and spending time outside while healthy and then self-isolating as needed seem very reasonable. Here’s hoping for healthy days and return to normal!

    1. Probably a once in a lifetime event, can’t remember anything having quite such a total impact in my life certainly. Those steps are all we can do for now while we await eventual vaccines. Bring on normality as you say!

  10. I was so thrilled when I realized the amazing 2-week trip to Scotland my family had planned closely mirrored your “If I were you” post. I am holding onto hope that the extreme measures of self-quarantining, stopping air travel, banning crowds, etc., will throw a big wet blanket on this virus and come May it will be safe to travel again. I want to feel that Highland welcome and bless the Scots in return by happily spending my money on wonderful Scottish products and services. If I get there in May, I will be so thankful and Scotland will be all the sweeter! Alba gu bràth!

    1. Good taste Jolynn. It’s hard to imagine it being resolved by May I must say, but honestly who knows. Be daft to even guess I think. Fingers crossed for you, May is a great time of year!

  11. Nice article Neil. But as you say, this situation is changing hourly in Scotland. As a small rural restaurant in the Scottish Borders, we aim for a local market, but the tourist trade is also a very welcome bonus. We deal almost entirely with small local independent suppliers, and the severe downturn in business from both the local customers and tourist trade is crippling both for us and our local economy.
    I don’t see a quick way out of this and hopefully it will not deter people coming to this amazing country of ours in the future.
    The Caddy Mann. Jedburgh. Scottish Borders.

    1. Think you’re right there and we’re likely going to just have to take a huge hit this year and hope for better next. Whether travel will ever be the same again is another matter, it feels like a game-changer. We’re a resolute bunch up here though of course, we will adapt and return to our best eventually I’ve no doubt. Keeping the communities looking out for each other, on a human and economic level, is a strong start. Best of luck in the Borders!

  12. Hi Neil, we had a great hiking vacation on Harris and in Assynt last summer, hoping to make it back this year and spend some time in Knoydart checking on trees we “planted” there courtesy of the John Muir Trust, and now this…
    Life is full of surprises, some sweet and some bitter, more bitter at my age sad to say, but on we go, so how can we support the small outfit? By putting on our hiking boots and showing up thirsty and hungry at their doors as soon as this nightmare is over…
    Stay germ free my friend
    Andy

    1. Sounds like a wonderful trip! A bitter one for us all this one Andrew, stay safe. And yes very true – start booking trips for the longer term and be generous when you do get here as you say(anyone left standing will be extremely grateful I’m sure!).

  13. Neil, do you expect the virus quarantines could hang around as long as the fall? I was considering postponing my trip which was supposed to be in a few weeks until late August…

    1. Any answer would just be a guess Rachel I’m afraid – I think it’s fair to say the UK govt don’t know what they’re doing and are making it up as they go. Astonishingly there is still no quarantine in the UK despite our European neighbours being on near total lockdown, but that will change soon. I’d imagine several months of this at least to be honest, but there’s no precedent to even use as a guideline and it could be longer.

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