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What happens when Covid restrictions hit a town where hospitality and tourism is key?

The streets of Pitlochry have been quiet over the past few weeks

The pandemic has been a struggle for anyone in hospitality – and especially hard in communities where tourism can mean 90% of business.

That is what is happening in Pitlochry in Highland Perthshire.

The town became a popular tourist destination in the Victorian era and has relied on this industry ever since.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, it has been tough.

Major events like The Enchanted Forest, which attracts 80,000 visitors a year, the Highland Games and the New Year’s Day Street Party have all been cancelled for the past two years.

The town missed out on thousands coming to compete in the Etape Caledonia cycling race in 2020.

Now businesses in the town are speaking out about the pressures, and calling for a lot more help from the Scottish and UK governments.

Hettie’s Tearoom

Hettie’s Tearoom is a popular cake and coffee spot on Atholl Road in the town. During the pandemic they have had to reduce their covers from 62 to 34, leaving some waiting two hours for a table at peak times.

Clare Pinchbeck, the tearoom’s owner, said: “I think people are very nervous and that really affected us.”

Clare Pinchbeck, owner of Hettie's team room (right) with her staff
Clare Pinchbeck, owner of Hettie’s team room (right) with her staff

She added: “The little bit over Christmas and New Year in Pitlochry is crucial to seeing you through to the end of winter, but we were so restricted.

“Around 90% of our business is tourism – between May and September the locals can’t get in anywhere.”

Social distancing cut access in summer and they had to slim down the takeaway service.

“My sales for the two weeks over Christmas and New Year compared to 2019/20 were down 28%,” she said.

“We are on a skeleton staff who are testing every day, and there is a worry there is not enough of us to go around.”

Ms Pinchbeck says they have not seen any of the money that was promised before Christmas, and wants to see the rules for getting back to work after a positive test result changed.

Hettie's Tearoom staff
Hettie’s Tearoom staff

She added: “It is confusing having different rules in different places.

“We have people coming from south of the border who have only just been told to put masks back on and people are very fed up with it.

“There was money promised before Christmas too but we have not seen hide nor hair of that – getting it would help.

“No one has seen the money, I don’t even know if I am entitled to it.

“I also think if you test positive then two days after your first negative test you should be allowed to come back to work.”

She adds she would also like to see the free-rates period extended, VAT kept at 12%, and more government support to help install renewable energy sources.

McKays Hotel, Bar and Restaurant

McKays is a hotel, bar and chippy on Atholl Road which has had to completely change its business model.

Alex Summers, the general manager, said: “Primarily we were a bar which allowed people to stand, and obviously we couldn’t do that so now the business model has changed to table service.

“Over the past couple of years we have started to be seen as a restaurant/hotel rather than ‘let’s go to the pub for a pint’.

“It was never the intention going forward, it has been done by default.

“We lost a lot of revenue over Christmas – we probably lost about 50% of those who were coming for the three-day Hogmanay package.

Atholl Road, Pitlochry
Atholl Road, Pitlochry

“Nicola Sturgeon is scaremongering people.”

However, Mr Summers says the staycation market has helped businesses like his during the pandemic and is building 20 more bedrooms.

He added: “The whole A9 corridor between Dunkeld and Aviemore has had a good season because of the staycation market, people want to get out into the countryside and we have benefitted from that.

“Caravan parks have had their seasons extended by a month or so too, even with no Enchanted Forest and no street party.”

Furlough was excellent the first time round, so was Eat Out To Help Out.”

– Alex Summers

He wants some of the support that was offered in previous lockdowns put on the table again.

“Furlough was excellent the first time round, so was Eat Out To Help Out,” he said.

“And in the second lockdown furlough was fine, but after that medium-sized businesses like ours suffered.

“When we applied for a grant we got rejected.

“I don’t particularly think the government has dealt with these restrictions as well as they could have done, but if I was in charge I would probably upset someone too.

“A lot of businesses have struggled but this is not going to go away any time soon so we need to learn to live with it and make the best of things.”

Moulin Inn

Moulin Inn on Kirkmichael Road is a hotel boasting one of Scotland’s oldest pubs.

General manager Fiona Meechan says hospitality if often wrongly blamed for rising coronavirus cases.

She said: “When the new restrictions were brought in a few cancelled so we were not as busy as in previous years.

“Over Hogmanay we decided to go ahead with our plans even though we couldn’t have a dancefloor.

Moulin Inn
Moulin Inn

“We gave people the option of cancelling because of that, but everyone still wanted to come – I think everyone is just so fed up of it all.

“Even the old people are sick of it and want it over and done with.

“Normally between Boxing Day and January 4 you can’t move in the bar, but it was not like that this year and I don’t know if it will ever go back.

“People are eating and going home a lot earlier, we have no one in our bar past 9.30pm now and I am not sitting leaving the bar open on the off-chance.

“Originally the support and the grants were great, but it is almost like we have been forgotten about this time around.

“We need to open back up again because it is not hospitality that is causing it. Stop blaming hospitality for it.”

Inside the bar at Moulin Inn

He added: “90% of hospitality are responsible – we do track and trace on everybody and since it came in I have not had one phone call from anyone saying ‘I was here and now I have Covid’.”

Ms Meechan also worries prices in the town have gone up too much as part of a staycation boom.

She added: “The summer season was good, 90% of our business is tourism. But everything has gone up in price.

“You are going to kill Pitlochry because people are saying they won’t come back because of the ridiculous London prices.”

Coffee Break

James works at the Coffee Break café on Atholl Road and says the difference in the rules between England and Scotland can be confusing.

James at Coffee Break, Pitlochry
James at Coffee Break, Pitlochry

He said: “There has been an effect and it is quieter, because people are trying to be extra cautious because they are all worried about the Omicron variant.

“We get a lot of people coming up from south of the border who didn’t need to wear masks for a long time and think ‘I don’t need to wear them in England, why should we here?’

“A lot of the English tourists are unclear on what the laws are.

“The advice needs to be clearer, Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson are doing different things whereas I think they should make it the same across the board.”

Fonab Castle Hotel and Spa

Fonab Castle is a five-star hotel overlooking Loch Faskally and Pitlochry Dam – its food and drink manager Shashi Prakash says the government guidance needs to be clearer.

He said: “After the announcement over Christmas we needed to take a lot of precautions and cut down our numbers so we stopped taking in non-residents and things like that so people felt safer.

Fonab Castle Hotel and Spa, Pitlochry
Fonab Castle Hotel and Spa, Pitlochry

“We had to make sure our guests had plenty of space and make sure everyone is sanitising as they go.

“I think the government should be doing more for the smaller privately-owned businesses in the town.

“We have a lot of coffee shops and things like that here in Pitlochry and they have not had very much support.

“We needed to be clearer on the guidance – if the guidance was clearer, businesses could prepare themselves better.”

What does the Scottish Government say?

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has already taken the lives of at least 150,000 people in the UK, is putting unprecedented pressure on our NHS and leading to high staff absences across the economy.

“The Omicron variant, which was identified just before the festive period, represented a new and highly infectious strain – and it was essential to limit contact between people where possible to keep them safe, including staff working in businesses and their customers.

“Because of the success of the vaccination programme, and the efforts we have all made to curb transmission, we are now in a position to begin lifting the necessary public health restrictions as outlined by the first minister.

“We strongly sympathise with businesses which have been affected by Covid-19.”

The government said it spent nearly half a billion pounds more in support of business than in funding received from the UK government for that purpose.

A £375m support package was announced recently for businesses hit by Omicron changes.

“We are working at pace with local authorities and other delivery partners to ensure this additional funding reaches businesses as soon as possible and payments have now started,” the spokesman said.

How much Covid money is there?

Since the start of the pandemic, the Scottish Government has given out £4.4 billion in business support.

This includes £113 million for hospitality businesses and £9m for tourism businesses affected by the Omicron variant.

The UK Government’s Department of Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy declined to comment.

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