Published: 18/07/2012 17:03 - Updated: 18/07/2012 17:05

Tourist trade plummets as business market buoys hotels

Written byby Alan Shields

Royal Hotel.2012 – one of the worst tourism seasons for Caithness in recent history.

That’s the consensus from hotel owners in the west of the county – despite the “staycation” market being heavily marketed this year following the recession.

Two hoteliers who spoke to the Caithness Courier said there has been a complete lack of tourist trade in the county this summer.

Thurso’s Royal Hotel is the largest accommodation provider north of Inverness with 103 en-suite rooms.

However, the Traill Street hotel has been struggling to fill the rooms, said general manager Hamish Mackinnon, who added that if it was not for business trade it could be even worse.

“This year is one of the worst I’ve seen for quite a few years, without any doubt at all,” he said.

“Quite frankly without workmen from wind farm developments and so on, we would be really struggling this year.

“Long may the work continue because it’s the current mainstay of business – the tourism is certainly not there.”

Mr Mackinnon said the hotel, which is part of the Oxford Hotels and Inns chain, has been battling to find business as coach tours and individual holiday-maker numbers are down on last year.

“It’s certainly a lot quieter and there are a lot more cancellations which I put down to not being able to get accommodation in London and other places when they fly in.”

Even the promotion of the staycation market – holidays in the UK instead of abroad – by tourist bodies has done little to bring new faces to the far north.

“VisitScotland and the Government prattle on about staycations but I haven’t seen any on one – I’d love to know where they are staying,” said Mr Mackinnon.

“Personally, with the Scottish Open on in Inverness last week I thought we might have picked up a bit but no.

“Certainly from my own point of view we are getting no-one turning up at the door ad hoc.”

Even for the business customers that are keeping the hotels going there is no silver lining as the average spend per head is down on last year as companies tighten up on expense budgets.

Similarly, the owner of the Northern Sands at Dunnet, Donald Sinclair, told the Courier that in his eight-year tenure at the helm he cannot remember another season so quiet.

“Spring and early summer were not too bad but certainly from mid-June through to now it’s been far the worst year we’ve had since being here,” he said.

“It’s very quiet for the time of year from our point of view.

“The weather doesn’t help but there doesn’t seem to be any one reason for it.”

He added: “The last two weeks have been particularly quiet.”

Mr Sinclair said the Northern Sands’ biggest area for trade is with local people dropping in for food but the accommodation side of the business – which consists of 12 rooms – has been the worst affected by the recent drop in trade.

“It seems to be a lack of tourism in Caithness in general rather than anything else,” said Mr Sinclair.

“Locals are still going out here but I don’t think we are being hit as bad as some people in the county.”

However, bucking the trend, Liz Sutherland, the owner of family-run eight-bedroom hotel the Pentland Lodge House in Granville Street, Thurso, said it managed to extend the early tourist season by cashing in on tours to see the northern lights.

“The northern lights were prominent in the national press over last winter and due to this we successfully stretched our tourist season with a number of visitors coming up in the hope of seeing the northern lights,” she said.

“They had a fantastic time touring the north with us, even without many places being open.”

More tours are planned for later in the year as Mrs Sutherland hopes for repeat trade.

In general terms she said there had been fears European bailouts could affect business.

“With many of our past visitors coming from Italy and Spain we thought the eurozone crisis could reduce our European guests but the slight decrease from Italy and Spain has been offset by increases from northern Europe,” she said.

“The media concentration on the recent diamond jubilee activities and forthcoming Olympics combined with the continuing domestic recession made us worry about our UK tourists especially as the weather has been so bad down south.

“However, we have been very pleased with the number who have come and are booked to come north this summer with many arriving saying how pleased they were to see the sun.”

Caithness appears to have missed out on a national tourism rise – with the general consensus that 2012 has been one of the worst tourist seasons for the county in recent memory.

The number of visitors to Scotland rose by five per cent over the year, according to figures published at the start of July.

The results of The Office of National Statistics, combined with those from the Great Britain Tourism Survey show that there was also a 15 per cent increase in expenditure by visitors to Scotland over the 12 months from March 2011 to March 2012.

However the good times failed to reach Caithness according to local hoteliers.

Hotel owners around the county have slated this summer season for its lack of tourists coming to Caithness, as the Olympics, flooding and the recession bites hard into the local economy.

North Highland Tourism chairman Murray Lamont and a representative from Visit Scotland were unavailable for comment at the time the Courier went to print yesterday.

According to the latest figures internationally the number of visitors rose by one per cent and the domestic “staycation” saw a six per cent increase in visits to Scotland from within Great Britain.

There was a 21 per cent rise in the amount domestic visitors spent and a four per cent increase from international visitors.

Tourism Minister Fergus Ewing MP said that Scotland is continuing to see growth in the tourism sector – an “encouraging” sign in the current global economic climate.

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