How a year of Covid-19 changed tourism and travel as we know it

From staying home to staycations, 2020 was the worst year ever for tourism and travel.

Exploring Scotland in a campervan is popular with travellers keen to keep socially distanced. Trˆigh Iar beach near Horgabost, Isle Of Harris, Outer Hebrides.
Exploring Scotland in a campervan is popular with travellers keen to keep socially distanced. Trˆigh Iar beach near Horgabost, Isle Of Harris, Outer Hebrides.

For a society used to cheap weekend breaks abroad and trips near and far at the drop of a bucket hat or beanie, Covid-19 was a shock to the system. The biggest crisis the travel industry has ever faced has changed the way we travel for good and there were winners and losers.

Tourism is a labour-intensive sector, directly contributing around 229,000 jobs (8.8% of all Scottish employment) and the pandemic had life-changing repercussions for those working in the industry as well as those who enjoy travel.

When lockdown hit last March, the furlough scheme was not yet in place and businesses were hit hard.

As James Thomson, owner of Edinburgh’s The Witchery and Prestonfield said: “Since opening my first business,The Witchery, some 42 years ago, this has unquestionably been by far the most challenging year of my life. It led me to take the heart-breaking decision to close the Tower restaurant which had run successfully for 22 years and sadly resulted in me losing 55 very loyal employees.”

Thomson has managed to protect the remaining 200 staff at The Witchery and Prestonfield through the Furlough Scheme and by taking out a £2.5million Government CBILS Loan with RBS, plus a Scottish Government Hotel Support Grant which has protected jobs in the currently closed events business at Prestonfield.

With travel restricted there was an urge to hit the road when lockdown lifted, heading for places with outside glamping spaces or remote self-catering havens.

Meanwhile businesses adapted. Some hotels flagged up self-catering options where they could and got creative - the Fife Arms, Braemar opened an online shop, while others refurbished and relaunch, such as voco Grand Central, Glasgow. At Dornoch Castle Hotel, on the North Coast 500, they decided to crowdfund.

Lossiemouth East Beach in Moray made it into Instagram's top 50 most photographed beaches worldwide.

“We launched what I believe was the first major hospitality Crowdfund campaign,” said owner Colin Thompson. “It was immensely successful, raising £48,000 in just two days, going on to £70,000 from around 300 contributors (who get a 20% uplift in value voucher) and hundreds of amazing messages. This gave the whole team immense confidence to keep moving and get through this.”

“The big change last summer was the move away from our traditional international golf, whisky and history visitor, to UK-based, many doing the NC500, generally a shorter stay, maximum of two nights, looking for high quality dining, plus a large increase in daytime trade.”

One of the ups of lockdown was discovering beauty on the doorstep as Scotland went to the top of travel attraction lists. Lonely Planet’s best Day Walks list highlighted Skye’s Quiraing, the Stacks of Duncansby in Caithness and a meander through Melrose in the Borders, while Lossiemouth East Beach in Moray, was up beside Bondi and Venice Beach in the top 50 of the world’s most photographed beaches on Instagram.

Air travel was a big loser with a drop of 75% in passengers using UK airports during 2020 and airlines estimated to have lost £20bn. In Scotland, Glasgow airport was hit hardest with passenger numbers falling from 8,843,000 in 2019 to only 1,944,981 in 2020 a fall of 78%, while Edinburgh saw them decrease from 14,734,000 to 3,473,652 a drop of 76.4%.

The bar restaurant in Kimpton Blythswood Square, where tables were rearranged to accommodate social distancing.

In December The Scottish government launched a £104.3 million package  of support for tourism businesses, with an additional £25 million announced in February, including £1 million to provide support to campervan and motorhome operators and £10 million for visitor attractions.

Finally a shot in the arm was delivered on March 16 when Nicola Sturgeon announced accommodation can re-open from April 26, subject to wider restrictions still in place.

VisitScotland Chief Executive Malcolm Roughead welcomed the boost to tourism after one of the toughest periods ever, however, sounded a note of caution.

“We won’t just be able to push a button and tourism will recover – we have had a year of very little investment, job losses and business closures and it will take time and significant support to get us back to a thriving industry.”

Kimpton Blythswood Square, Glasgow, was popular with locals looking for escape from their own four walls.

This caution is mirrored in bookings with Scots more likely to plan for later in the year and to UK destinations than English counterparts, although holiday firm TUI saw a 500% increase in bookings, and with Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Portugal and Spain open for business, and Jet2holidays say customer confidence has returned.

Nowadays there are three key ‘musts’ for travellers - being vaccinated, low Covid-19 rates in destinations and Covid-19 travel insurance. Safety is all, with BA trialling Covid passports and vaccine proof required by P&O cruises.

A spokesman for VisitScotland said: “We know Scotland is a popular destination for UK residents and as we saw last year there was a real desire from Scots to explore their own country. After spending so much time at home, demand is once again likely to be high for rural destinations and green spaces that offer physical and mental well-being benefits.”

And while travel and tourism have taken a massive hit, there have been winners, such as the 3.2 million households who gained a pet during Covid, as Edinburgh leads the UK dog-friendly staycation list, thanks to its green spaces, dog-friendly restaurants and beaches, according to

With 85% of dog owners choosing a staycation over abroad, 2021 looks like being the year of the dog. And our top holiday activity? Going for a walk.

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