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While concerns mount as to how the provisional reopening of tourism businesses next month will impact on Lochaber communities still fearful of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a warning that tourist spending remains the only major economic game in town for the area’s long-term future.
The warning from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB Scotland) comes in the wake of reports that towns such as We live herOban (68 per cent) and Fort William (43 per cent) are among those suffering the worst fall in debit card spending across Scotland since the end of March, compared to the same period last year.
David Richardson, FSB development manager for Highlands and Islands, told the Lochaber Times that tourism’s vital importance to the local economy explained why recent FSB Scotland research found substantially more businesses have had to close during lockdown in the Highlands and Islands than elsewhere in Scotland, and why 25 per cent of all businesses in this region fear they will never reopen.
‘Most of these businesses are as important to locals as they are to visitors, and the possible departure from Lochaber of owners whose businesses have failed, and their families, would leave a massive hole in an area already experiencing negative demographic change,’ said Mr Richardson.
And he cautioned: ‘If we want a vibrant Lochaber economy and a balanced population, plus all the benefits that go with them, then businesses, communities, public agencies, Highland Council and others must all work together to support and nurture the only economic game in town for the area as a whole – tourism. If we don’t, the cost will be high.’
And this week, local MSP Kate Forbes urged tourism businesses and organisations to engage with their respective local communities ahead of tourism businesses restarting.
Subject to the R rate (the average number of people who become infected by a person with COVID-19) remaining at a satisfactory level, the Scottish Government has said the industry can start to reopen on July 15.
Ms Forbes commented: ‘I would like to see tourism businesses and organisations engaging with local communities who might have questions about what it means for them, and vice versa.
‘I know that people have questions about how the rural economy slowly starts to ease out of lockdown, and tourism has always been the lifeblood of the Highlands and Islands.’