Scottish islanders start petition to keep tourists away

Mark Rowe
Shetland - istock

Tourism businesses on Scottish islands have expressed concerns that a rapid easing of lockdown restrictions will see them inundated with visitors over coming weeks and lead to an increase in coronavirus cases among local communities.

Fergus Ewing, the Scottish Cabinet secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, has indicated that Scotland’s tourism industry could reopen on July 15. But a petition launched on Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides by resident Jen MacNeill has received more than 2,000 signatures. The petition calls on the Scottish and UK governments to provide ‘a designated route map’ out of lockdown and provide financial assistance to encourage the tourism industry to open in a controlled way.

"A 'one-size-fits-all' approach to restarting tourism isn't acceptable to the Scottish islands,” it reads. "Many of the islands have been lucky enough to avoid the virus thus far, and desperately want to keep it that way to protect, not only our precious older generation, but our newborns, our pregnant residents, our vulnerable people...We need a designated route-map and additional financial assistance from the government to keep our communities safe."

Scottish islands have seen some of the lowest infection rates during the pandemic, with many having strictly observed lockdown, while air travel has been restricted to lifeline services only.  

The Outer Hebrides has had just seven confirmed cases and is the only region in Scotland without a Covid-related death. In Shetland, 54 cases have been confirmed and seven deaths. In Orkney nine cases have been reported and two deaths. 

The fear is that by opening the doors to tourism, the islands are exposing their communities to risk. In a typical year, Orkney sees almost 200,000 visitors and Shetland 80,000. In total, more than 250,000 tourists were projected to visit the Outer Hebrides this year, with tourism valued at £74m to the island economy. 

The petition, though, makes it clear that local businesses are putting the health and safety of their community above the need to make money this season. “Many tourist-based businesses are taking the potentially financially crippling decision to remain closed for the summer,” it reads. 

On the Outer Hebrides, owners of several self-catering properties and lodges have decided they will not open up until the autumn at the earliest, citing both fear of spreading infection and the long-term financial impacts. “If a person were to fall ill, we have to keep them here self-isolating,” one owner on the Uists said. “We would not expect them to pay for either their original booking or the additional time they had to isolate in the cottage. But that leaves us as a small business looking at bankruptcy. There is no clear indication that we would be compensated for loss of earnings or how we would compensate the people who do the Saturday changeovers.” 

Callanish Standing Stones, Lewis - istock

Locally-run community shops are a distinctive feature of the Outer Hebrides, and their limited space poses problems. “Our shops are small and cramped,” said one shopkeeper on the Uists. “We already have long queues of local people outside our shops. If we get the sort of numbers of people coming over that we usually do, then we will never serve everyone. We are simply not geared up for the numbers that would come. 

“If one of us falls ill, who will take over? You cannot just get more staff in as you would in a big city. The shop is, literally, just us. If we get symptoms, we close.” 

On Barra, one owner expressed concern about how infection could spread quickly among the local population. “Many of those running B&Bs, or who work in shops, are elderly folk or are vulnerable in other ways. Our local hospital just could not cope with a surge in numbers of any kind.”

Despite the continuing travel ban, small numbers of campervans and other tourists have already made it to the islands. “I’m wondering if we’ve time-travelled into August,” said a weaver from a croft on Lewis. “People are here who really shouldn’t be. I just wish they’d go home and come back when it’s safe for us.”

Another small craft business owner on Lewis acknowledged that it’s a bit of a catch-22, with many feeling that they needed to open to save their livelihoods. “A lot of businesses are opening again this week as they need to get customers in,” he said. “I fear that people will be visiting here no matter what we try to do or think. The islands do want to reopen, but maybe not as fast as mainland Scotland.”

CalMac - istock

Islanders on the Outer Hebrides are pressing CalMac Ferries, who are currently only taking bookings two weeks in advance, to stand fast on their policy of running boats at just 10 per cent of capacity in a bid to keep visitor numbers low – particularly on popular routes such as Uig on Skye to Tarbert on Harris and Lochmaddy on North Uist. Northlink Ferries, which operates the bulk of services to Orkney and Shetland, continues to operate a lifeline-only service and has yet to announce any changes to accommodate tourists. 

The need to balance support of the local economy, which relies so heavily on tourism, with the health and safety of locals is a pressure that is being felt across the UK, but perhaps not more so than here, in these isolated communities. Here, it feels as though there is a sense that more time is needed to prepare, which is why the petition is so rapidly gaining support. 

“Public health continues to be number one priority for us all and we’re all very conscious of the need to protect our local community and its health and care resources,” said Elaine Tulloch, Chief Executive of Destination Orkney. “Our main focus is on supporting the industry and working collectively to ensure a safe, joined-up and coordinated approach to the reopening of Orkney’s tourism industry.”