A Coronavirus Update as Summer Starts

How utterly dismal that instead of showering you with travel inspiration at this beautiful time of year in Scotland, I’m restricted to diverting more energy into second guessing the next steps of COVID-19. Such are the times as I attempt to update travellers on the situation here, the big issues in the industry and give some indications as to when we may be able to experience Scotland again. It’s not all doom and gloom though I promise, I throw a silver lining in at the end that’s hopefully more than a token gesture.

 

The current state of play

To speak bluntly, the UK’s coronavirus numbers in terms of impact are the worst in Europe, and eclipsed by only a very small number worldwide. Handled with abject incompetence throughout, this outcome began with an inexplicable delay in imposing lockdown measures in the early spring, despite most of the continent doing so in response to the scale of the outbreak in Northern Italy. Lurching from one farce to another ever since, we are now experiencing an easing of lockdown in Scotland for the first time and the coming weeks will see some businesses re-opening and the economy tentatively squint at the summer daylight as it emerges from the shadows. There is no question though that we are much further behind than we would want to be with regards bringing this virus under control, and will find ourselves at a competitive tourism disadvantage with countries that have better contained the virus.

Tourism worldwide will of course be among the last to return to any semblance of normality. The industry will be decimated and faces short, medium and long-term uncertainty on a scale that nobody could have imagined just a few months ago. In Scotland, tourism makes up around 10% of GDP, is a huge employer and captures thousands of businesses of endless shapes and sizes. All will have been frustrated by the inability to gather definitive answers on the future outlook, although most accept that safety and health must of course come first in government decisions. There has been support packages that have helped many, however plenty have fallen through the cracks and are in big trouble. We’re not a happy wee nation at the moment.

Restrictions began to ease in England a couple of weeks ago, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland pursuing a more cautious route, with more candid detailing (credit to Nicola Sturgeon for that), for now. We are now able to meet friends and family but only outdoors and at safe distances, while travel is restricted to loosely around 5 miles from home. We will now move tentatively through multiple stages of easing, constantly prepared to hastily retreat should numbers creep back up.

 

The Rural Situation

Almost from the outset of all this, it became clear that rural areas faced a different kind of challenge to urban communities. Without access to the same level of facilities (hardly any in some cases), food supplies and transport connections, these folks faced the very real prospect of being invaded by urbanites looking for a self-isolated escape, even if just as part of a day trip. Empty shelves, strain on facilities and, of course, a multiplied risk of the virus arriving and spreading – all became alarming realities. The ‘second home’ debate has become particularly fiery, with certain well-knowns flouting the guidelines in order to have a scenic view to ease their personal frustrations.

portree skye scotland
Portree
lonely cottage scotland
Tempting as it is….

After a combination of furious backlash from locals and government pleading, the delicate rural concern was largely addressed and lockdown restrictions blocked anything other than short-distance and essential travel. However, the longer-term outlook for rural areas remains complex. It seems that access to some islands will remain restricted, even when other parts of the country are opening for business. Given that ferries are the only feasible means of getting to most islands, Calmac and Northlink will be the enforcers and will have to work closely with island local authorities to both respect distancing requirements on board and take the delicate nature of rural community needs into account. In short, the rules for island travel may differ to the mainland.

oban gateway to the isles scotland

 

Likely Travel Outcomes – Summer

I say ‘likely’ very liberally here, this is little more than a calculated guess at this point and just one man’s opinion. Do not hold me to it. Equally, I think it’s important to at least attempt to be candid to all those who have been in touch asking for guidance. There’s lots of ifs, buts and maybes out there and they don’t answer anyone’s questions so I will attempt to break down the fluff in order to hopefully help everyone to make up their own minds.

‘Staycationers’

I would expect July and August to be open for domestic business – with some restrictions as indicated above – and that those living on mainland Britain will be able to move around with relative freedom. Social distancing will need to remain in place, masks could be compulsory in indoor public spaces and extreme hygiene will be encouraged/enforced. Most tourism businesses will be permitted to open but there will be fewer than we are used to because, amongst other reasons:

  • Some will have gone out of business by that point, or cannot afford the cost of re-starting.
  • Some will consider the restrictions too arduous to be worth the bother of re-opening in the short-term. The regulations that are sure to kick in will scare off many, especially given that tourism employs a lot of people who do what they do for passion and enjoyment, not just a salary (and sometimes salary has nothing to do with it at all).
  • Many rely on international workers who have gone to their home country during lockdown (and can’t get back) or have left permanently in the face of Brexit, which began this year.

Although many are trumpeting staycations as the saviour to the industry it is important to note that people are currently extremely nervous – even domestic travel will cause a lot of potentially prohibitive anxiety. Furthermore, the amount spent by domestic tourists is significantly less than international visitors and this will be reflected in the actual economic benefit to the industry. While campervan companies and self-catering providers could be rubbing their hands, I’m not so sure hotels, B&Bs, restaurants and tour companies will be doing the same.

st giles cathedral edinburgh
Remember these days?
ceilidh scotland
Not be doing this for a while!

International

The situation here is different. Flights are going to be significantly reduced at best over the summer, despite airlines’ best efforts, and I think many people will be extremely reluctant to board a plane any time soon for health reasons. So the health risk, possibility of enforced quarantine on arrival (due to start in the UK on the 8th of June as things stand), testing and delays, the aforementioned safety regulations, a distinctly cooler reception that you’d typically receive from locals……all suggest that international visits by air will be fraught with challenges this summer.

Arrivals by ferry and the Eurostar may be a slightly better bet, although come with big questions too. The Eurostar has been running a reduced travel service throughout this spell so I see no reason for that to disappear as things ease – it still doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea, however. Even if no border restrictions are in place over the summer (not guaranteed by any means), it would be over to every traveller’s personal circumstances and judgement in making that decision to travel. This presents the murky and dangerous issue that, just because we may, technically, be permitted to travel, does not mean we necessarily should.

 

Post-Summer

Although initial logic would suggest that by autumn restrictions will have eased almost entirely, the unwanted reality is that a ‘second wave’ is expected then. By lowering our guard – largely to save economies to at least some extent – the virus will presumably spread anew and the autumn could see us set back alarmingly. We have to hope not. But it does slam a gigantic question mark over September onwards. If we have coped well, perhaps we can be thinking of opening up fully to international visitors, or be back to square one and full lockdown.

For those with existing bookings for the autumn/fall, I understand this is unbelievably frustrating and I do sympathise. All that can be done is to continue to monitor the situation as it evolves.

 

A Better Future

This has been an exceptionally tough time for everyone. We’ve all got our complaints, tales of woe and frustration and no doubt 2020 will be a year that not one of us will ever forget. We’ve seen the best and the worst of the human race, hopefully with plenty of empathy and consideration to counter the anger and disgust. But when the storm eventually subsides, and it will, what can we look forward to with a sense of purpose and positivity?

The concept of ‘slow/sustainable/responsible travel’, as it’s being loosely viewed, is something I could get right behind. Less flying, driving and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it selfies; more walking, cycling and meaningful immersion. Forgetting what we instinctively turn to and resetting our goals and approach to travel.

I’d personally like to say goodbye to the days when we jetset about like nobody’s business, leave gigantic carbon footprints for future generations to sweep up and only ever really skim the surface of the places we travel to. Instead, really get to know places, especially those on our doorsteps. Travel less frequently, but for longer. Save up excitedly for big holidays and see them as a real treat as opposed to travel for the sake of travel. Don’t try and do Scotland in a week, it’s absurd. Pick a region or two and get to know them, stay for several weeks, properly befriend some of the locals and research the history. Take the hikes that the guidebook writers have never even heard of. Tailor your travels to you, the individual or the family, don’t squeeze into someone else’s suitcase just because that’s the way it’s always been done.

I spent several years of my twenties doing the opposite. I travelled because I wanted memories and adventures. I realised I was chasing something quite superficial, that I certainly never found. The switch fortunately flicked before long and I’ve been immersing myself almost exclusively in my homeland ever since, searching for something deeper. I’ve severely restricted my flying in the last few years, I never drive in cities and I’ve changed my diet and lifestyle with environmental impact in mind. What may have seemed an unpleasant sacrifice was something I found to be remarkably easy and….natural. I can thoroughly recommend it.

Behavioural changes like those are a start. At local level, pedestrianising city centres, improving public transport and supporting local businesses that focus on local produce could be a silver lining at the end of this nightmare. Our societies have been increasingly restless in recent years as an ‘always-on’ approach to work life has spilled into our travel habits too. Frenetic and ill-considered charging about have created overtourism, the join-the-queue selfie culture and a startling lack of awareness about our true impact. I’m pinning my hopes on a more sustainable and meaningful time on the other side of this, one that I’m sure we’d all benefit from.

Tourism had to change. There’s never been a better time.

Stay safe and healthy everyone and hopefully Scotland can extend a warm welcome to you soon.

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