Hotels, pubs, restaurants and visitor attractions in Scotland are preparing to open their doors again from next month.
The ailing sectors were given the “much-needed clarity” they sought after Rural Economy and Tourism Secretary Fergus Ewing set a target of July 15 for the lifting of restrictions.
Industry leaders hailed the announcement as a “hugely positive milestone in our road to recovery”, enabling businesses to try to “salvage a share of their summer season”.
But just hours after the statement, the Macdonald Hotels Group become the latest high-profile hospitality chain to signal drastic cutbacks.
The operator of 31 well-known hotels, including at Aviemore, and the Drumossie in Inverness, as well as Norwood Hall and Pittodrie House in the north-east, said it was issuing consultation notices to each of its 2,299 employees, with 1,800 roles “at risk”.
Group deputy chairman Gordon Fraser said: “There is no realistic prospect of us returning to anything approaching normality for the foreseeable future and, whilst its enormously regrettable, we simply must take these steps to ensure that we have a meaningful business when this situation ends, enabling us to bring back as many of our employees as possible.”
The shock move was the latest evidence of the catastrophic impact of the coronavirus lockdown on tourism and hospitality in Scotland, and analysts fear it could take the sectors “several years” to bounce back.
Tourist businesses alone employ about 8% of Scotland’s workers in 15,000 registered businesses, but that proportion rises to as high as 15% of jobs in Argyll and Bute, and 12.8% in the Highland region.
After pleas for clarity from firms, Mr Ewing told MSPs on Wednesday that the government expected to confirm at a scheduled review on July 9 that most tourism and hospitality business would be able to resume operations from July 15.
The decision would coincide with the easing of travel restrictions and the beginning of “phase three” of the Scottish Government’s route map out of lockdown.
Mr Ewing also announced the establishment of a Scottish Recovery Tourism Taskforce, which would try to chart the revival of one of the country’s most important industries.
He said: “The coronavirus pandemic has presented challenges across the entirety of the Scottish economy, but it is very clear there are exceptional circumstances facing this sector that must be recognised.
“We have acted as quickly as we can to address the significant financial challenges faced by businesses and provide a comprehensive package of support.
“We are also pushing the UK Government to do more, including a review of VAT rates and to consider extensions to schemes such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
“I’ve been engaging with businesses since the beginning of the outbreak and I have heard their calls for more clarity, which today I can provide.
“Businesses should start to prepare for a provisional return to trading – with appropriate safety guidelines – on July 15 2020.”
The date would depend on the latest public health advice.
The sector still hopes that some businesses may be able to open earlier, including self-catering accommodation, campsites and caravan parks.
Many businesses also fear that a return to any form of normality will be close to impossible while the two-metre distancing regulations remain in place.
However, Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) chief executive Marc Crothall said: “The cabinet secretary’s announcement that the majority of tourism businesses can reopen on July 15 this afternoon marks a hugely positive milestone in our road to recovery in what has been an exceptionally dark few days and indeed weeks for Scotland’s tourism industry.
“The STA has pushed hard for an indicative date to be given to allow accommodation providers, visitor attractions, pubs and restaurants to plan effectively, accept bookings, make arrangements for return of their staff from furlough, conduct training and, most importantly, ensure that all safety protocols are in place to provide their employees and the public with the confidence and reassurance they need to feel safe to return.”
He added: “The reassurance that there is a summer season for tourism in Scotland will offer a huge comfort and relief to many thousands of businesses today.”
Andrew McRae, the Scotland policy chairman at the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “With these new details about when they’ll possibly reopen, small accommodation providers can start making the necessary preparations.
“That gives these firms an opportunity to salvage a share of their summer season. Ministers have made a sensible decision by releasing this information.
“But Scottish tourism isn’t just a bed for the night. Other businesses in the visitor economy – such as tour guides or local galleries – can now start making decisions about how and when they should reopen.”
Emma McClarkin, chief executive officer of the Scottish Beer and Pub Association, said: “The setting of a date for reopening is some positive news for the country’s pubs and brewers, and something we have been pushing the Scottish Government on for several weeks.
“This gives some much-needed clarity for the sector and will also give industry the time necessary to put in place what is needed to reopen safely on July 15.
“However, there is still a number of challenges for pubs that can’t be forgotten.
“Under the current two-metre social distancing rules, we believe up to two-thirds of Scotland’s pubs will need to remain closed.
“It is imperative for the hospitality sector that the Scottish Government explores the World Health Organisation’s suggested one-metre rule for social distancing.”
After being pressed on the issue by Labour’s David Stewart, Mr Ewing also raised hopes that a “positive response” could be forthcoming on pleas for urgent support to the Highland Wildlife Park, after the attraction warned it was heading towards “extinction”.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Stewart said: “I welcome the fact that financial support may be forthcoming and I hear the animal welfare considerations that must also be taken into account.
“However, there is support for early opening of animal parks in England and I will continue to press for this in Scotland in a bid to ensure the Highland Wildlife Park in my region makes it through this financial crisis.”
Meanwhile, Conservative MSP Edward Mountain wondered why the restrictions could not be eased on the review date.
“This is good news. However, if the Scottish Government is announcing confirmation of this decision on July 9, I question why tourism businesses have to wait a further week to reopen.”
Green MSP John Finnie sought reassurances over the impact on ferry services.
“The reopening of the tourism industry will of course put pressure on our ferries, presently operating an essential-lifeline-timetable service, so I am pleased that the cabinet secretary was able to acknowledge this point and will ensure that the residents of our islands will not be disadvantaged as we seek to reopen the islands for visitors,” he said.