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Travel agents and retailers in Scotland cry out in wake of post-Christmas Covid misery

An external view of The Overgate Shopping Centre
A Boxing day sales rush in Inverness

Scottish travel agents and retailers have issued emergency calls for support as Covid restrictions kill traditional post-Christmas sales booms.

The Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) has called for further aid for shops as visits “nose-dive” and footfall plummeted last week after an already “lacklustre” pre-Christmas trading period.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA) has called for grant support to overcome “oppressively stringent” travel restrictions, without which the industry could “wither and die”.

The interventions come as shopping centres and high streets across Tayside and Fife were disappointed when the usual Boxing Day sales fell flat.

Dundee's Murraygate on December 28
Dundee’s Murraygate on December 28 with many shops reporting poor footfall.

SRC said retail sales in Scotland’s shops in November were 13% lower than in the comparable period prior to the pandemic. Shopper footfall was 19% down over the same period.

Footfall then plummeted by a further 10 percentage points last week following new public health advice and the reintroduction of Covid restrictions, with Scotland the weakest of the four home nations of the UK, SRC said.

The trade body added shop vacancies in Scotland have reached a six year high, at 16.4% of retail premises.

In pre-pandemic times, Scots would also flock to book their summer holidays in the period between Christmas and New Year following the major travel operators’ adverts which are always released on Boxing Day.

But as high street travel agencies opened to the public after the Christmas break, enquiries and bookings have been at a virtual standstill, SPAA said.

Confidence ‘shattered’

Joanne Dooey, president of the SPAA, said: “There’s no Christmas bonus for the travel sector this December.

“There is no post-holiday spike for Scottish travel agents, as holidaymakers’ confidence in travel has been shattered over the last 20 months.

“This will push travel agents who have fought tirelessly for almost two years to save their businesses to the edge.

“In 2021, travel agencies were operating at just 22% of their previous annual revenue compared to pre-Covid yet their fixed costs remained the same. Many of our members tell us they were operating at 10% or less of previous years.

“Travel agents have become administrators; rebooking and issuing refunds while receiving no revenue and no grant support to help.

“We support those in all industries which have been told there is grant support there for them. But travel agencies are being pushed out of business by stealth.

“Restrictions around travel have been oppressively stringent, meaning people have no confidence in travelling.

“We need a structured plan to be drawn up by the Scottish Government in full consultation with all aspects of the travel industry which supports the future of Scottish travel rather than allowing it to wither and die.”

Joanne Dooey, president of the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association

SRC has sent a letter to Scottish finance secretary Kate Forbes and to Holyrood’s Finance and Economy Committees setting out potential further business support in Scotland.

It has called for the Scottish Government to “scrap the cap” on the business rates relief for retail and hospitality for the coming financial year and extend the period it applies for. It has also called for Scottish Government to consider a consumer stimulus for the new year such as high street voucher scheme or temporary free or discounted parking or public transport.

David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium.

More support needed, says industry boss

David Lonsdale, director of the SRC highlighted that the Welsh Government announced that shops will be eligible for Covid grants

He said: “It was apparent at the time the Scottish Budget did not go far enough for retailers or consumers.

“With businesses now being stricken further following a series of government Covid announcements, the budget should be revisited and more support put in place for struggling shopkeepers.

“The time-limited and capped business rates relief will only help the smallest retailers and pales against the offer in other parts of the UK.

“It will do little to help many retailers who continue to be battered by the fallout from the pandemic, especially medium sized and larger retail chains who are not only essential to healthy high streets and city centres but who pay the lion’s share of retailers’ business rates and employ most staff.”

He added: “Scottish retailers are facing a bleak midwinter as Covid restrictions and shop visits nose-dive, shrinking retail sales at the worst possible time.

“Scottish Ministers need to recognise this new reality, and take further action to save Scotland’s struggling shops.”

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