Tourism is being “thwarted” by a lack of urgency in easing restrictions for alcohol provisions and planning for the return of international visitors, an industry leader says.
Scottish Tourism Alliance chief executive Marc Crothall aired his concerns – and criticised what he called “nonsensical” tax plans – after hearing from representatives of all main Holyrood parties on the future of the hard-hit industry.
The comments were made one day before Nicola Sturgeon is due to make another update to coronavirus restrictions for Scotland.
During the tourism husting, SNP tourism minister Fergus Ewing said the gradual easing of rules has been a “balance” for government.
He admitted international tourism will be a “challenge” but claimed domestic businesses should do “reasonably well” this summer.
Mr Ewing, pressed on the heavy restrictions on hospitality, also said alcohol makes people “less inhibited” and less likely to follow strict public health rules.
Meanwhile, Greens said international travel will never return to normal, while Labour said a tourist tax could pay for recovery.
Smaller accommodation providers including self-catering and B&Bs are starting to open up from Monday April 26.
The hospitality sector should be able to reopen outdoors for the service of alcohol from that date, but businesses south of the border have been able to sell drink outside since April 12.
Mr Crothall said: “The Scottish Government needs to address the serious issues thwarting the tourism sector.
“Issues of alcohol provision, uncertainty around international tourism and the night-time economy are holding us back.
“After the year we’ve had these businesses need support to survive, let alone thrive.”
He added: “Scotland’s tourism sector can and should play a significant part in driving our economic recovery.
“Businesses across the Highlands are eager to welcome visitors and have proved they can operate in a safe way. Whoever is in power after May 6 needs to pull out all the stops to make that happen.”
On Labour’s stance on tourist taxes, he said: “The sector is going to take years to recover from the devastation of the last year.
“Clapping more taxes on already struggling businesses is nonsensical. We need all of Scotland’s political parties to be united in trying to ease the burdens on the sector and attract more visitors.”
Each of Holyrood’s five main parties were represented at the live questions-and-answers session, hosted by former BBC Scotland political editor Brian Taylor.
They were each put on the spot over the future of international and domestic tourism, as well as the impact of long restrictions.
Mr Ewing, the SNP candidate in Inverness and Nairn, said the sector is going to need more financial support in the long-term.
He added: “The domestic sector, as we saw last summer, is able to do reasonably well this summer. The challenge is the international sector.”
However, many in the domestic tourism and hospitality business feel restrictions have been too slow in being lifted.
Asked why people can’t yet have a socially-distanced beer outside a pub or restaurant in Scotland, Mr Ewing said: “The difference is very simple. That is, I think as most of us know, as one becomes more lubricated, then the propensity is to become less inhibited and therefore perhaps not so mindful of the social distancing rules. That’s the fundamental element.”
International travel is not going to come back – it isn’t.”
Green candidate Laura Moodie
Scottish Labour’s Rhoda Grant defended a plan for a tourist tax to help improve infrastructure.
“It’s not a tax on the industry, it’s a tax on the visitor,” she said
“I’ve done this in other countries that charge that tax, it doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve been quite happy to pay it.
“If that means we can get a better offer for tourists, that takes them back into our local areas, then that’s money well spent.”
Greens candidate Laura Moodie said the days of mass international visitors at previous levels is effectively over – a major problem for city-centre hotels and conference venues.
“International travel is not going to come back – it isn’t,” she said.
Businesses cannot justify the expense anymore, she said, suggesting major hotels and conference centres will have to “reimagine what they are for”.
Conservative Jamie Halcro Johnston, a Highlands candidate, said there are concerns about international vaccine programmes, but added: “We should be looking to try to get back to as close to normal as we can.
“These are important visitors to our country that play an important role in our recovery.”
Lib Dem candidate for Orkney Liam McArthur said he’s confident tourism can recover. He called for better maintenance of existing infrastructure, including rural roads – and no distracting independence referendum.
“The next five years needs to see a relentless focus on recovery,” he said.