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Plea for extra support to rescue locked down outdoor activity centres

Steve Thomas at Freespirits Outdoor Activity Centre

Outdoor activity centres in Highland Perthshire are facing an uncertain future amid claims they have been “significantly under-supported” by Covid-19 relief funding.

Several struggling businesses have penned an open letter to local politicians demanding increased aid for their sector.

They say they do not qualify for the Scottish Government’s Strategic Framework Business Fund (SFBF) but are eligible to apply for grants from a much smaller top-up pot announced in mid-January.

Steve Thomas at Freespirits Outdoor Centre.

Steve Thomas, who runs the Freespirits Outdoor Company in Grandtully, on the banks of the River Tay, said his business received a total grant of £3,000, while other industries can claim up to £9,000, followed by £2,000 monthly payments.

“Businesses across all sectors understandably have grave concerns over the future survival of their companies,” he said.

“But unlike so many others, we find ourselves significantly under-supported with regards to grants and funding made available in response to the pandemic.”

Mr Thomas, whose firm offers white water rafting, canyoning and kayaking, said the amount made available to the Marine and Outdoor Tourism Restart Fund “hugely under values the contribution of outdoor activity providers to the Scottish tourism economy.”

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He said: “It leaves a large proportion of these businesses struggling, and there is the very probable outcome of them having to close permanently due to the severe lack of financial support that this package offers.”

Mr Thomas, who has worked in the outdoor industry since 1983, said: “My businesses has considerably high overheads, including the maintenance of a fleet of three vehicles, upkeep and purchase of equipment, insurance, utility bills and an array of other monthly outgoings.

“None of these costs can be reduced during lockdown, but yet we still don’t qualify for the SFBF.

“It is a bit ironic that the package has been entitled Restart Fund when we have no idea when we will legally be able to restart, yet we are expected to use personal funds or savings to try and keep ourselves afloat.”

Mr Thomas’ letter includes a list of businesses he said are in the same situation, including the Rafting Company at Grandtully, the Loch Tay Boating Centre at Kenmore and Nae Limits, near Ballinluig.

“Bear in mind, this is only a small percentage of businesses from Highland Perthshire,” he said.

“There are many, many more.”

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Highland councillor John Duff has called for more support for the sector.

“The outdoor activity sector forms a massive part of the tourism industry in Highland Perthshire and it’s survival is vital to the recovery of our local economy,” the Conservative said.

“It is extremely concerning that the sector has lacked financial support from the SNP Government throughout this pandemic to the point that many of these businesses are on the verge of going under with the loss of much-needed jobs.”

Mid-Scotland and Fife MSP Murdo Fraser said that financial worries had led to “real anxiety about how they will cope in the future.”

He added: “We are calling on the Scottish Government to look again at how they can provide vital funding to the outdoor activity centres.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said £2 million has been given to 33 residential outdoor education centres.

She added: “We recognise how challenging the restrictions are for many businesses including outdoor activity centres.

“Since the start of the pandemic we have allocated more than £3 billion to support businesses across Scotland.

“The Strategic Framework Business Fund provides grants every four weeks for businesses required by law to close or to significantly modify their operations.

“In addition, the £120 million local authority discretionary fund is empowering local authorities to direct funding to specific groups or sectors within their areas. The use of this funding is entirely at the discretion of local authorities based on the specific needs of their local economies.”

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