Hopes of ‘staycation’ boom turn to dismay as most hotel rooms are left unsold in Scotland

Almost half of accommodation businesses in Scotland are struggling to sell a fifth of their rooms over the summer amid growing anger at the prospect of social distancing restrictions remaining when they are lifted in England.

Wednesday, 12th May 2021, 11:17 am
Updated Wednesday, 12th May 2021, 4:46 pm

Industry leaders said a predicted “staycation boom” had instead turned into a “stark picture” for the summer season, with many businesses reporting a bleaker outlook than this time last year.

An average occupancy of just 22 per cent is being reported for Edinburgh in August, with the fate of flagship events like the Fringe and the Tattoo still uncertain

Occupancy rates in Glasgow, where live music businesses and nightclub bosses have been campaigning for the easing of restrictions in line with England, are just 13 and 15 per cent for July and August.

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Hospitality businesses on mainland Scotland will be allowed to start selling alcohol indoors from Monday, but will have to close their doors at 10.30pm under the country’s route map out of lockdown.

The Scottish Tourism Alliance, which carried out the research, said the “last chance” for most of the industry to recoup lost income would be the further easing of restrictions, particularly for the night time economy and events industry, but suggested that may come too late for meaningful recovery this year.

According to the STA’s findings, drawn from a survey of 980 businesses and operators, up to 45 per of accommodation providers have reported occupancy levels below 20 per cent for May, June and July.

Around 98 per cent of city hotels reported occupancy levels below 50 per cent in June, with the picture only slightly improving in July to 87 per cent.

Visitors have been slowly returning to the Royal Mile in recent weeks. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

STA chief executive Marc Crothall said: “Our survey uncovered what we knew was happening across the industry from anecdotal conversations – that things were nowhere near as buoyant as has been suggested and in fact, that too many businesses across all sectors within our industry are continuing to operate in crisis mode.

"We held three forums with hospitality, tourism and destination groups this week and they very much echoed our research findings.

"While smaller self-catering properties are looking at a positive level of recovery, other accommodation providers are struggling as bookings are not coming in at the level needed to trade viably.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week announced a wide-ranging review of social distancing over the next three weeks, the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted plans to remove restrictions in England on 21 June were on track.

The normally-thronged Royal Mile was almost deserted during the city's peak tourism season last summer. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Although Edinburgh’s festivals are expected to go ahead in some form this August, there is huge uncertainty over what restrictions will be in place.

The Royal Highland Show in Edinburgh, the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow and the Enchanted Forest light show in Perthshire have all been called off in recent weeks.

Edinburgh Hotels Association spokesman Russell Imrie said: “Edinburgh is not benefiting from any staycation boom as predicted and commented about regularly by government and tourism promotion bodies.

“Lead time to bookings has reduced considerably on previous years, with many bookings coming in between five and seven days before arrival.

Buchanan Street in Glasgow city centre. Picture: John Devlin

"Edinburgh hotels would expect to be at least 85 per cent occupied for May, June and July, but even with the last minute booking situation, they may struggle to reach 40-50 per cent.

"The lack of international travel, live events and culture, the restrictions on restaurants and hospitality and nervousness of tourists to be in cities are all negative factors for city visits.

"When you combine this with the attractiveness and perceived safety of the ‘big outdoors’ and nature, it is easy to see why hotels in coast, country and resort locations will be favoured over cities.”

Victoria Brooks, spokeswoman for Wild Scotland, the Scottish wildlife and adventure tourism association, said: “Some outdoor activity operators are experiencing high demand and are already receiving enquiries into 2022, which is incredibly positive.

“However, this is not the case across the whole sector. For many, it has been a very slow start - more of a distant rumble than the anticipated staycation boom predicted.

“Boat operators are significantly down on 2019 visitor numbers – this is due to limited capacity as a result of continued physical distancing restrictions, but they’re also experiencing very low demand which is incredibly disappointing and of course impacts massively on local and rural economies, including accommodation, shops, cafes and restaurants.

"You can put some of this down to the weather, but businesses are very aware that consumer confidence is lacking - messaging has been mixed and of course we are missing our international visitors.

“Tourism is vital to Scotland’s recovery but to survive we need to continue to invest both in businesses and infrastructure to support the anticipated demand.

"It is also imperative that consumer messaging relating to restrictions and travel is simple to understand across all four nations to restore consumer confidence and ensure we have a successful and hopefully extended season ahead."

Malcolm Roughead, chief executive of government agency VisitScotland, said: “The research by the Scottish Tourism Alliance paints a concerning picture.

“It will take some time for tourism businesses to recover from the devastation left by the pandemic. However, with visitor surveys showing increasing consumer confidence, and the announcement of further easing to restrictions on Monday, there are encouraging signs of hope for the summer months.

“Our marketing activity will be focused on encouraging people to staycation this summer and into the autumn – not only is our country and all it offers a perfect destination for a post-lockdown holiday, but Scottish tourism needs our support. We’re poised to restart our international marketing when the time is right and restrictions allow.

“While we continue to work with, and support, businesses to ensure we rebuild this vital part of Scotland’s economy in a safe and responsible way, there will be an emphasis on those destinations and sectors which have been hardest hit."

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