Castle Stuart fears it could take two years to get back on an even keel

Inverness venue feeling impact of Covid-19 crisis ripping heart out of tourism industry

Castle Stuart has hosted four Scottish Opens in the last ten years. Picture: Lynne Cameron/PA

The general manager of Castle Stuart, scene of four Scottish Opens in the last ten years, fears it could take until 2022 for the Inverness venue to get back on its feet properly due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Stuart McColm said the partners behind Castle Stuart are “digging very deep into their pockets” to keep the venue afloat due to the fact this year has effectively been written off from a business perspective.

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With no members other than a small number on a corporate programme, Castle Stuart is almost totally reliant on visitors, many of whom have been attracted by seeing its splendour on television through watching the Scottish Open.

Local golfers have been snapping up the chance to play the course, where Luke Donald, Jeev Milkha Singh, Phil Mickelson and Alex Noren all landed wins in one of the European Tour’s leading events, at a special rate of £50 since it reopened last Friday along with other venues in the country.

Other offers are in the melting pot for when travel restrictions are lifted by the Scottish Government as lockdown continues to be eased, but McColm is still bracing himself for a huge drop in turnover. He is hoping this season will be a “blip” in an otherwise successful tale since it became fully operational a decade ago, but reckons it will take time for courses like Castle Stuart to get back on an even keel.

“We have had better times, obviously,” McColm told The Scotsman. “It’s been a rough ten weeks, I have to say. The coronavirus crisis has ripped the heart out of the tourism industry in Scotland and the Highlands is always badly affected when that happens.

“There are a lot of businesses up here that are really struggling, which is a shame. There are a lot of good businesses that may not survive. It’s a tough time for everybody.

“We’re only going to hit 15 or 20 per cent of our normal expected turnover this year. I don’t need to spell out the math on that in terms of a deficit. Put it this way, it won’t pay the bills this year. Thankfully, we’ve got partners who are digging very deep into their pockets to keep it going. They’ve said, ‘we can’t walk away from this’. “That being the case, I fully expect we will survive this year. We have a game plan and budget to suit. Rest assured, we are on a no redundancy policy. We are a tight team. We are a great team. We’ve had very few people leaving the team in the ten years that we’ve been operational.

“We were on an upward trajectory. This is a blip as far as we are concerned. We want to get back to some sort of normality. But I think it is going to be another year, if not two seasons, before we get back to any sort of normality.”

Last week, a group comprising of leading Scottish golf tourism representatives sent a letter to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon calling for the sector to receive urgent support, warning of a “clear and present threat” due to the impact of the pandemic.

“I was quite happy to put my name to that as we need someone lobbying on our behalf,” said McColm of joining forces with fellow club managers and secretaries, as well as hotel owners.

“I think it is going to be the first week of August before any hotels are operational in any capacity. That has a bearing on our ability to get golfers into the area. I think June and July will be sparse for us and I think it is incumbent on the First Minister and the Scottish Government to understand that Scottish golf and Scottish golf tourism is a massive part of the income coming into Scotland.

“It’s a huge sector and I think we needed a voice explaining that as sometimes these things get lost. It is important that they know. If they don’t know, how can they fix it and help us? I think the message was loud and clear: there’s a problem, we think you know about it but, just in case you don’t, here’s our challenge.

“It’s courses, hotels, caddies, taxis, buses, food suppliers. It’s huge. Absolutely huge. And it’s not until it is taken away that you realise how many businesses are affected.”

At the moment due to the Scottish Government’s guidelines for phase one of lockdown being eased, Castle Stuart is only open on a restricted basis with a five-day week and limited tee-times, with local golfers with an IV postcode playing the course for just £50 at a time of the year when the normal rate is usually £225.

“I had budgeted a certain amount for the month for locals and I’ve achieved that in the first week, which is excellent,” said McColm. “We’ve had enquiries from people in other areas of Scotland, which we’ve had to refuse at the minute. As for the next few weeks and months, I’d love a crystal ball as it’s hinged on an awful lot of things, including the travel restrictions.

“Once the travel restrictions are eased – and I don’t know what radius we are talking about for phase two – we will open up our tee sheet with introductory rates across all sectors for the first few weeks as and when those sectors are allowed to travel.”

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