SCOTLAND’S cities could face a tougher fight to bounce back from the pandemic than rural areas according to the leader of a tourism think-tank, who warned that the majority of hoteliers are now ‘on the edge’ of survival.
Professor John Lennon, director of the Moffat Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University, which advises the Scottish Government on policy, said areas such as the north of Scotland had experienced a boom after the first lockdown was lifted as visitors flocked to the ‘safer’ countryside from urban areas and had more disposable income to spend.
Meanwhile, cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, traditionally seen as the backbone of tourism expenditure continued to suffer the crippling combined effects of less foreign and domestic visitors, conferences and live events.
Prof Lennon said Brexit could help mitigate some of the losses after restrictions are lifted if it fuels a surge in staycations due to the rising costs and added bureaucracy of foreign trips but said anxiety over crowded cities is likely to remain even after the majority of the public is vaccinated.
The UK is also likely to see less European visitors who traditional spend more money while business tourism will be impacted by a more permanent shift to home-working and the convenience of virtual meetings.
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“What last year showed us was some very unusual patterns in Scottish tourism.
“The cities particularly had always been the backbone of tourism, that’s where people spend the most money, places like Glasgow, Edinburgh an Aberdeen where the meeting, conferences and exhibitions are. That’s where all the business tourism is as well as leisure tourism.
“The cities have led tourism over the last twenty years but what was very apparent in that brief period between July and the beginning of October was that the cities remained very quiet but the rural areas, the coasts and the north of the Scotland all boomed.
“People were flocking there in large numbers. It was this sort of emotional thing that they felt it was safer to be in the open air.
“When we had that gap, the cities didn’t recover. There was no Edinburgh festival and business tourism hadn’t returned.”
He said data shows the majority were staying in self-catering or smaller, high end ’boutique hotels’.
“What they wanted to do was do things in groups with their families or friends such as a really nice ‘Airbnb’ or a large country house or go to quite a luxury hotel like the Torridan in the far north of Scotland.
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“What that tells me is that the demand is still there. What we will look at when we emerge from this one in the Summer is whether we will see the same patterns.
“Until there is widespread vaccination, it’s always going to be held back somewhat. But even when that happens we are still in this Brexit disaster which means we are not as accessible a destination as we once were.
“We might look like good value because our currency is cheap but if put any doubt into a travellers mind, will I be able to get in, will there be long queues, will they test me…more people will just stay where they are.
Prof Lennon said the weakening of the pound since the Brexit vote against the dollar and the Euro is likely to push up the cost of international travel while budget airlines may be forced to cut more routes.
“Those destinations will be more expensive, they will be harder to get to, there will be less flights and there are likely to be more expensive.
“The connected world that we enjoyed in 2019, where you could take a flight to a destination in Europe at short notice – that’s going to take a while to come back. Ryanair and Easyjet will carefully monitor volumes on whatever routes they have left.”
All this, he said, could lead to a staycation boom but UK tourism will also suffer from the lossed of foreign visitors who have a greater spend.
“The post-Summer recovery will be domestic led, it will be Scottish and English and the issue there will be, that per capita they have never spent as much as the International tourists.
“If they are still avoiding cities which is what the data today has told us and people may make emotional decisions about their holidays so if they are not spending (in the cities) the self catering spend is lower.”
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He said the hotel industry is likely to experience more insolvencies, with more businesses snapped up by foreign investors, while more Airbnb properties will come back onto the private rental market.
“This market has collapsed in terms of pricing so flats in Edinburgh, flats in Glasgow are much cheaper than they were a year ago. There is lots of cause and effect.
“Hotels carry such high fixed costs, that unless you have the same volume of revenue coming through you can only continue for a couple of months, even with furlough. Government intervention has been a lot better than disease prevention in my view.
“Some city centre hotels have had a bit of business from NHS and allied healthcare but they aren’t getting the food and bev.
“These guys (hoteliers) are really on the edge now. They have probably just weathered it until Christmas but the second wave makes it really difficult. There are few businesses that could endure a whole year of negative trading.”