‘Arrochar will not survive without tourists’

Emma Gibb and Gail Stone with baby Harper
Emma Gibb and Gail Stone with baby Harper.

By James Cook, of BBC Scotland

Self-catering businesses can reopen in Scotland from today but hotels, restaurants and B&Bs must remain closed. The impact of the lockdown and social distancing on tourism has been disastrous, with the loss of thousands of jobs. BBC Scotland’s The Nine found out how one community has been coping.

Harper is a lockdown baby, born in a storm.

She was just four weeks old when her mum, Emma Gibb, and gran Gail Stone both lost their jobs.

Gail was the head of housekeeping at the Claymore Hotel in the Argyll village of Arrochar, some 40 miles north west of Glasgow. Her daughter was the housekeeping supervisor.

The hotel closed on 22 May along with a sister property, the Tarbet Hotel, just a mile and a half away across the isthmus separating Loch Long and Loch Lomond.

The Claymore Hotel
The Claymore Hotel closed in May

Fifty jobs went in all – a huge blow for these small connected communities, home to fewer than 1,000 people.

“It was devastating,” says Gail, who had worked at the Claymore for more than a decade.

“A horrible situation,” adds Emma, who was on maternity leave when she was made redundant.

Harper is napping in a car seat on the foreshore of Loch Long while we chat. The tide is out, the water still, and the ragged peak of Ben Arthur – better known as The Cobbler – hides somewhere in the morning mist above us.

A paddleboarder with The Cobbler in the background
A paddleboarder with The Cobbler in the background

Both Emma and Gail had spent two months on the UK government’s furlough scheme before the Claymore’s parent company, Specialist Leisure Group, collapsed.

The coronavirus which swept across Scotland in the spring arrived at a disastrous time for the nation’s 15,000 tourist businesses and their 218,000 employees who make up 8.3% of the national workforce.

As the sun blazed in May and the sector entered what should have been its prime earning period the country was locked down: bars and restaurants were closed, hotels sat empty.

It was particularly painful for Argyll and Bute where a much higher proportion of workers – 15% – are directly employed in tourism.

“It’s so strange to see it so quiet,” Emma tells me.

“At this time of year you couldn’t get into the village pub after 3pm because it would be packed with walkers.”

beer kegs
Over a barrel – Covid 19 has put the future of Arrochar at risk.

She says about 300 people would arrive in the area at the start of the week and another 300 on a Friday to stay at the Tarbet and Claymore Hotels.

“The [remaining] hotels, cafes, even the local pub, it all relies on people coming to the village,” she added.

“There’s not enough in the village for it to survive without.”

According to the national tourist agency VisitScotland, hotel occupancy rates in Argyll and the isles usually jump from just under half in April to about 90% in May, where they remain until September.

The occupancy of guest houses, self-catering properties and B&Bs normally peaks in August.

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How much is tourism worth to Scotland?

According to figures from VisitScotland, in 2018:

  • 15.5 million tourists visited Scotland and stayed for at least one night
  • 12 million were UK residents, spending £2.9bn
  • 3.5 million were from overseas, spending £2.2bn
  • In addition there were 153 million day trips, the lowest level since 2011, spending £5.5bn
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No-one is more aware of that than Fiona Campbell, chief executive of the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers. The trade body represents 1,000 businesses, a membership which has leapt up from 600 at the start of the crisis.

She says she worked day and night to persuade politicians that the sector would be plunged into an even deeper crisis if it had to wait until mid-July to reopen as originally planned.

Inside the kitchen of an elegant country house in Arrochar, which she rents out to tourists, she tells me that the situation is “terribly, terribly sad” with “many, many jobs” already lost.

“It’s not just property owners like me who are affected,” she says – there is also an impact on cleaners, maintenance staff and gardeners, plus other local firms and tour operators.

Fiona Campbell
Fiona Campbell says many jobs have already been lost

Ms Campbell’s lobbying appears to have paid off.

Self-catering is leading the way out of Scottish tourism’s lockdown from today, 3 July, while hotels, bars and restaurants are still scheduled to reopen on 15 July.

Ms Campbell says they are “delighted” to be at the forefront of helping the Scottish tourist economy “stand back up on its own two feet”.

“As a sector we’re in prime position to reopen,” she insists, glancing around a spotless kitchen with empty pots and pans hanging above a large, gleaming stove.

This house has, she says, been scoured “to within an inch of its life,” in accordance with “robust cleaning protocols” adopted by “the Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish governments”.

Not only is it safe, she says, but after more than 100 days in lockdown “people are desperate to get away” – to restore their sanity with “open spaces, beautiful scenery, fresh air”.

“The timing of this whole pandemic has just been catastrophic in all manners,” adds Ms Campbell.

Tranquil scene on Loch Long – a magpie searching for mischief on the shore.

But self-catering alone will not revive Argyll’s economy.

In 2018, the latest year for which figures are available, 700,000 day trippers to the region ate a meal in a bar, restaurant, hotel or café, according to data from VisitScotland. That is a fall of 30% from the previous year.

Another 382,000 purchased a snack in a fast food outlet or takeaway, down 37% on 2017.

Many business owners here are nervous about talk of a fortnight’s quarantine for visitors heading north into Scotland, which is reporting fewer cases and deaths than England, where a local lockdown has been imposed to try to contain recrudescence of the coronavirus in the East Midlands city of Leicester.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon insists her decisions are primarily driven by public health concerns not politics, and she has not ruled out such a measure if Scotland and England continue to diverge in containing the virus.

Social distancing

The discussion is being monitored carefully in Argyll and the isles, where four in every five visitors last year were from Great Britain. Although most travelled from Scotland, English and Welsh visitors spent more, accounting for nearly half of overnight tourism expenditure.

The other big problem for the industry is social distancing.

Jane Ireland runs restaurant and bar Slanj in Tarbet with her son Tom, supporting 22 staff plus visiting musicians.

She says the pandemic has been “devastating… there’s not another word”.

At this time of year, business would usually be continuous from 09:00 until they stop serving food at 22:00.

Slanj can usually serve a maximum of 110 people, but keeping customers two metres apart means reducing the capacity to around 40, she reckons.

Slanj bar
Jane Ireland runs the Tarbet restaurant and bar Slanj with her son Tom

Ms Ireland is not convinced that it will be worthwhile making the investment in screens and other measures in order to reduce the capacity to one metre, as suggested by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Thursday.

She says she’d rather stick with two metres and no additional costs for now, even though, in her view, no-one in tourism will be making any money this year with such limited custom.

“I think everybody’s going to have to dip into their savings,” she says. “It’ll just be a case of surviving. It’s just keeping our head above water.”

From this Monday, 6 June, Ms Ireland intends to reopen her beer garden – but without access to toilets, which are still not allowed to open, she thinks business will be limited mainly to camper vans with their own facilities.

She is very keen on the return of the camper vans though, pointing out that each one spends on average £47.25 in a 12-hour period in her bar, restaurant and shop.

‘We need support’

She is generally supportive of the Scottish government’s approach to handling the pandemic, and grateful for financial help from the UK government.

But she wants to see clear, simple advice on how businesses can operate safely, and she is worried that Treasury support will be cut too fast in the autumn.

“If we withdraw it too quickly we won’t get through,” she warns.

“There will be redundancies. There will be businesses closing because we need the support. We absolutely need the support.”

And she added: “January, February, March – that’s when I think you will see businesses going under.”

Keeping the economy afloat without risking lives is the challenge of our times and it has led to conflict in rural communities.

Arrochar has had one Covid-19 death, but also wave after wave of day-trippers flouting the lockdown, putting villagers on edge.

Angela Mckell
Angela Mckell says the community spirit has increased

The pandemic, says Angela Mckell, practice manager and nurse at the village’s GP surgery, “hasn’t stopped people travelling to Arrochar to climb The Cobbler”.

It’s not locals that are breaking the rules, she adds ,but people who are coming from outwith the area.

With official car parks closed, many visitors’ vehicles have been abandoned dangerously on narrow country roads, she says. The local fire engine even crashed into one.

“So there’s been issues around safety and maybe people bringing Covid to the village,” she says.

Still, she adds, “there was already a good community spirit here – but I think it’s increased. I think people have come together to look after each other.”

Arrochar Hotel
The Arrochar Hotel which sits at the fork in the roads to Loch Lomond and Helensburgh.

There’s evidence of that in the setting up of a public larder containing food, drink and other essential items, to which vulnerable or struggling locals can help themselves anonymously.

Ms Mckell says that “particularly since the hotels have closed, we’ve seen that we’re stocking it up a bit more”.

There is one other piece of good news. Gail Stone already has a new job, as head of housekeeping in the Loch Long Hotel.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” she admits.

It is a rare bright spot at a gloomy time. Everyone here knows that Arrochar faces a dilemma.

Locals, says Ms Mckell, are anxious in case there’s a second wave of Covid-19 because of extra people coming into the village.

But at the same time, they know that a lack of tourism will have “a huge impact”

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