The Scottish Tourism Secretary has cast further doubt on when international travel may be able to resume.
Fergus Ewing said while the domestic tourism industry should be able to get up and running again later this year, “the resumption of international travel is far, far less clear in prognosis”.
His comments, to MSPs on Holyrood’s Tourism Committee, come after national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch is said to have warned Scottish Government civil servants against booking a foreign holiday for this summer without being sure they can get their money back.
While the coronavirus pandemic has hit the tourism and hospitality sector particularly hard, Mr Ewing said he is “most concerned” about the part of the industry reliant on international tourists.
Current coronavirus restrictions mean people are not permitted to enter or leave Scotland unless their trip is essential.
Mr Ewing told the committee: “If you ask me to identify sectors about which I am most concerned, it would be those either wholly or substantially dependent on international trade.
“Because I think most of us feel instinctively it may be possible for tourism to resume at some point this year, some may say it may be in March/April, others may be more sceptical and pessimistic.
“I think most of us feel the staycation market should revive and it will be busy, as it was last year, if we are able to travel again safely.
“But I think most of us also realise that the prospect of the resumption of international travel is far, far less clear in prognosis.
“We just don’t know at the moment how effective vaccinations are going to be, whether new strains of the virus are going to cause an ongoing problem and whether vaccines are going to be effective against them.
“So the future of businesses involved in international trade – and that includes aviation, airlines, hotels, many visitor attractions – I think we may need to think of looking at how we focus at some point our support on those business which, after domestic trade reopens, are still in the situation of being effectively without revenue.
“That is an issue with which we are grappling at the moment.”
Mr Ewing also said some businesses are “struggling to survive”, and the UK Government should consider making changes to its furlough scheme.
He said the initiative, which has been extended until April, still requires employers to cover some staff costs when they may have no money at all coming in.
“Some hotels are really, really struggling to survive,” Mr Ewing said. “They have gone through their reserves, they have taken out large loans, they have used up their savings.
“They don’t want to make their staff redundant, but they still have these overheads, because the furlough scheme doesn’t meet all their costs.
“If this Covid restriction period extends beyond April, or look as though it is going to extend beyond April, an extension of the scheme will be required.
“But in the interim I do think the UK Government may need to look again, and look again now at whether the furlough scheme is sufficiently fair, having regard to the fact that it doesn’t really do what it says on the tin – help businesses defray fixed overheads for which they have no income because the state has said you are not allowed to trade.
“The state has said you are not allowed to trade, but the state is not meeting all the fixed overheads that hotels have in relation to keeping on employees.”