by Colin Campbell
With overseas travel virtually off limits, the “staycation” surge of visitors to the Highlands is now well underway, with estimates that more than two million visitors will arrive in the region over the summer months and beyond.
This mass influx is causing problems in some areas, most notably along the NC500 route which has become a victim of its own global marketing success, with concerns over severe traffic congestion and a lack of basic infrastructure like toilets to cope. The increasingly vocal concerns of local people used to a much quieter life are understandable.
But for Inverness the influx of visitors, which is rapidly gathering pace, is hugely welcome.
Many hotels are now hitting full capacity most nights of the week. And as the increase in visitors grows with the arrival of the English school holidays, that should soon be every night of the week.
Some are reporting staffing shortages. One riverside hotel has vacancies in almost every department, and it is far from being alone. This gives rise to the thorny and unanswered question, if there are jobs available, why aren’t out of work people applying for them?
Hotel work is invariably hectic and sometimes arduous but many would say a job and the regularity of work is a lot better than living off the state on benefits.
For pubs and shops who, like the hospitality industry have suffered a terrible time over the past year with months of lockdown, the arrival of tourists in very large numbers will be a massive uplift.
And pent-up visitors desperate for a break from their home routine are coming here with money to spend.
The riverside, a favourite strolling area on a pleasant summer night, is replete with the now unfamiliar sound of visitors speaking foreign languages. With strict border restrictions in control, where, I’ve heard it asked are these folk coming from.
Chinese visitors have been much in evidence in recent days. The other night the Tesco store in Tomnahurich Street was full of them. Where are they coming from in these restricted travel times?
Well, they haven’t just jetted in from Beijing or Shanghai, that’s for sure.
On inquiring, I learned they’d come here from the less exotic city of Birmingham, where they are studying in large numbers. Invernessians still in the grip of virus paranoia need have no fears that they’ve just arrived from Wuhan.
Late on Saturday night, a group of them went paddling ankle deep in the waters of the River Ness.
For some inexplicable reason, someone called the police, who quickly realised they were neither drunk nor in mortal danger, and let them get on with cooling down as they wished.
Another riverside hotel at the weekend welcomed a group of Russians. But again, they’d not arrived from Moscow or Vladivostok, but were students from Bournemouth, enjoying a first time visit to Inverness and the Highlands.
So while foreign visitors are around the city, they are principally of the “home grown” variety.
Before the virus struck, some city hotels were heavily dependent on coach tours, bringing in thousands of mainly elderly visitors from the United States, Europe or Australia.
For hotels and hotel staff, they were the perfect guests, polite, orderly and organised. But such tours have obviously vanished for now.
As visitors flood in, those at the opposite extreme are not, mercifully for hotel staff and the city as a whole, replacing them. Inverness and the Highlands does not appear to have much if any appeal for the Ibiza crowd, who descended on that Spanish holiday hotspot like a drunken plague. They have taken their holiday custom elsewhere, to “livelier” destinations which are welcome to them.
When city hotels reopened last August, charges were at rock bottom prices, with some top of the range hotels offering accommodation for £4O or £50, a third or a quarter of what they would normally charges.
Those days are over as prices rise steadily in a bid to recoup lockdown losses. Whether or not they will increase to hugely expensive £300 or £400 nightly charges which have previously resulted in critically negative headlines remains to be seen, although the rule of supply and demand is likely to be decisive as always.
The Highland holiday influx is not yet in full swing. But with millions due to head north it soon will be.
Other parts of the region may be having their problems, but for Inverness its role as a prime staycation destination in 2021 is fantastically good news.